Sunday, 18 September 2011

A river runs though it... Johan (1921)

Johan is a 1921 film directed by Mauritz Stiller that is as well made and sophisticated as many Hollywood silents from later in the decade. It is a technical tour de force featuring some stunning filming of the Swedish woodlands, daring shots of boats bumping through white water and some subtle, powerful and realistic acting from the cast.

As such it is emblematic of the Swedish cinema of the time, underlying, along with Stiller’s earlier works such as the below-mentioned Thomas Graal, why the Scandinavians’ sophistication made them world leaders as cinema entered it’s third full decade.

The story is based on Juhani Aho’s novel, Juha (1911), and is set, in the film at least, in the unforgiving landscapes of the Swedish Lapland. This was a hash environment in which families had to fight hard: hunting, logging and fishing constantly risking their safety to eak out their living.

Johan, played with steadfast innocence by Mathias Tauber is one of the leading men and lives with his domineering mother (Hildegard Harring) in a basic log cabin they share with a teenage girl they rescued from the snow, Marit, played by Jenny Hasselqvist.

Into this close and closed community comes a group of strangers, hired to help them lower the depth of the lake. One of their number, played by the baby-faced but bullying, Urho Somersalmi, becomes attracted to Marit and she is torn between her loyalty to the man who brought her up and the newcomer.

Johan is already married to the shy Marit but she is young and craves excitement. Finally she allows herself to be lured away by the stranger and they make their escape riding the rapids of the river.

Marit is pursued by Johan and he finds her after, having second thoughts, she leaves a message with an elderly neighbour. Johan arrives and confronts the stranger, knocking him savagely to the ground with a log. Then it is Johan’s turn to have the wind taken from him as he realises that Marit has left of her own accord.

And yet…she has learned a lesson and wants to return. Johan accepts this and the two head off back up the river to find a new accommodation…their marriage revived by her brief infidelity?

Johan is an atmospheric film with a great consistency of tone and is a visual delight, sepia-tinted throughout to highlight the glorious, rugged rural beauty. The film makes great use of this natural backdrop and this appears to be one of Stiller’s groundbreaking gifts. "Johan is an ode to light, which is based on the composition of the sun and the splendour of the water..." the Finish film historian Antti Alanen has commented.

More than this, Stiller threw his actors and crew into the heart of the scenery, especially on the water. His camera crew lashed to an occasionally visible, raft, he follows Merit and the stranger’s journey in close quarters. These shots are really quite extraordinary. The fragile boat is tossed around by the white water and Hasselqvist and Somersalmi clearly risked their necks for the drama. That they hold their poise is amazing and yet both are clearly in character (maybe not when Somersalmi falls in for a few brief moments!).

Of the actors, Jenny Hasselqvist is the stand out with a range of subtle expression that kept reminding me of Isabelle Huppert. There is one scene when making up her mind which man to follow; she must have subtly transitioned through half a dozen emotions in just a few seconds… entirely natural and entirely convincing. She carries her self with the poise of the prima ballerina (she was a world-class ballerina too!) and is always fascinating to simply watch move.

Hasselqvist gets a lot of screen-time in this film and she carries it superbly. For me she is incontestably one of the greatest actresses of silent film and deserves to be ranked alongside Brooks, Boardman, Helm, Nielsen and Garbo. Not a “classic” beauty she was, never-the-less, beautiful. She always seemed to be in control of her emotions and had the ability to make the most of her strong, haunting and almost inscrutable face. She had deep expressive eyes and a perfect, subtle smile and she knew how to use them!

In Johan her performance matches those she gives in Sumurun and Gosta Berling referenced earlier in this blog. She is the kind of surprise that makes watching silent movies so worthwhile: someone who’s skill level enables you to re-connect with and to re-contextualise these wonderful films!

It’s not too late to start a fan club!

And Stiller is the kind of director you discover as well; working so skilfully with the “new” medium and telling a story in an original, brave and, ultimately, highly-entertaining way.

Johan was long considered lost and was only recovered in the 1960’s. This DVD was released by ZDF/ARTE in 2001 and features a clear transfer that highlights the performance and the location. The modern soundtrack, composed by the Russian composer Alexander Popov, also ably supports the action albeit with the occasional over frenetic moment!

The intertitles are in Swedish with optional German subtitles but Johan is worth it! Hopefully an English language version will become available but until then, just follow Jenny’s lead and go with the flow!

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