Sunday, 5 November 2017

Atonement… The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924)

“You won’t escape by turning yourself into a beautiful corpse…” says Lady Margaretha Samzelius as she saves Gosta Berling’s life. “Don’t you know that most people are dead already… Do you think I’m alive Gosta Berling?” Revived by a misery shared, Gosta scrubs out his suicide note and declares: “Life must be lived! One has to move on!” 

The Saga of Gosta Berling is about redemption but mostly it’s about the human frailties that make it necessary and the weaknesses in society. Not all can be put right in a life and this powerful, complex story, based on a huge novel published in 1891 by Selma Lagerlof, takes its own time in deciding on outcomes with the film coming with a ready-made break about halfway through its three hours running time.

“It was a disgrace to love him, a disgrace to be loved by him!”
It is, of course, the film that originally got Greta Gustafson noticed before Pabst put her into his Joyless Street and she could avoid the call of Hollywood no longer. Her director in this film, Mauritz Stiller, went with her but it was only ever Greta they (probably) wanted and, unlike his friend and fellow director, Victor Sjostrom, Stiller never really got to show what he could do in an American studio.

Here, Stiller makes relatively light work of this sprawl of a story thanks in no small part to a very strong cast featuring three of the very best stage-Swedes plus the young girl from the department store who, every time I watch this film, still looks like a learner for all her visceral impact.

The film is centred on the great house of Ekeby, situated on Lake Lofven, in a glorious-looking Varmland with its “blue mountains… dense forests and foaming streams…”. Here there is a wing occupied by landless knights: “men lacking purpose… knaves, noblemen and former officers. Their past may be shady, but all were knights of adventure, of the goblet and of gallantry!”

“I am a penitent, the highway is my home – the haystack my bed…”
Gerda Lundequist, grandmother of Curved Air’s Sonja Kristina as it turns out (and that explains so much!), was a performer of power and presence who had made her name on the Swedish stage where she was known as the Swedish Sarah Bernhardt. Now, I’ve only seen a glimpse of Miss Bernhardt in film, but Gerda has the clear edge by combining close-up subtlety with controlled use of the grand gestures of stage mime: she is so in touch with her character and very much in the moment!

Her Lady Margaretha carries the daily pains of a life crippled by forced compromise… She is a commanding figure, the lady of the House of Ekeby, and yet her temper finally snaps as she is reminded of the favours afforded to her by the lover she couldn’t marry (Altringer). One of the Knights of Ekeby, drunk and instantly regretful, torments her with this and she is exiled only to return and raise the house to the ground not only in revenge but also to burn the memories and wipe the slate clean: a new beginning for everyone.

“Tonight, their quarters will be destroyed and my shame erased.”
The film’s male lead is Lars Hanson and he has the make-up to prove it… He has a most un-Hollywood trajectory to follow from disaffected and alcoholic priest to joining the Knights of Ekeby, a similar bunch of ignoble failures who, unlike him, have run out of second, third and tenth chances. Hanson injects just the right amount of irresponsibility into the role and manages to burn bridges believably… he’s too honest to be a priest and to live in gentile society with its mannered hypocrisy. He has a nobility tainted by his love of drink and his willingness to surrender to failure along with these lords of misrule.

The cruel manoeuvres of Märtha Dohna (Ellen Hartman-Cederström who is another to give an excellent performance) who seeks to gain fortune by marrying him to her niece Ebba (Mona Mårtenson), forces further disgrace on Gosta who ends up close to the edge in that fateful meeting with Lady Margaretha.

Jenny with Sixten Malmerfelt and Karin Swanström
Then we have Jenny Hasselqvist, world-class prima ballerina by day and one of the most emotionally-subtle of silent actors by Klieg light. She has a face imbued with the same kind of depth and sorrows as Isabelle Huppert – someone who is always working but your darned if you can actually see it! Here Jenny plays a slightly spoilt rich woman who is cast out by parents after a dalliance with Gosta and then endures the ravages of small pox before emerging a more generous spirit. It’s good to see her go through this arc and she is such a fine technician; every movement of feature and form deliberated with grace and supernatural poise… (oh alright!).

In the end she lets the man she loves go so that he can save himself… All I can say is that I really hope it works out with the youngster Mr Berling!

An emotional control that is extended to an always-expressive physicality...
In comparison with these powerhouses Greta, aged 18 and in her first major role, looks a little lightweight but, of course, knowing what we know, you can see the raw talent that would soon make her a World star. Her character Elizabeth Dohna, arrives as the unfortunate wife of a foppish and useless husband and impresses more as events develop in complexity and her feelings for Lars’ Gosta are revealed. Greta’s a presence alright and Stiller brings out her innate skill in exuding hidden depths… Gosta’s been loved before but this we believe may be the deepest (and he’s bloomin’ lucky Marianne let him go…).

This is a huge film with sprawling narrative, great performances and the birth of the star Greta. The Kino DVD is from a aged digital transfer and the good news is that the Swedish Film Institute are restoring the film and it should hopefully be screened in 2018 with renewed visuals and additional narrative clarity  - the scene in which Gosta and Elizabeth escape from the wolves repeats some elements.

I look forward to seeing the full glory of Gosta Berling and to watching those performances in better detail. We all know about Garbo, silent fans know too Lars Handsome Hanson… but we need to make more noise about Jenny! As for Gerda Lundequist, she is a joy to watch and she deserves the recognition the restoration will bring. Gosta Berling was a gift for these actors and the fact it gives so much quality screen time to the women makes it all the more interesting.

"Don’t you know that most people are dead already…"

No comments:

Post a Comment