Sunday, 4 September 2011

Thomas Graal's Best Film (1917) Stiller & Sjöström

Arguably the pre-eminent filmmakers between Birth of a Nation and Metropolis were not the Americans or the Germans but the Scandinavians. The Danes had everyone from Urban Gad, Benjamin Christensen to Carl Theodor Dreyer whilst the Swedes had the sophistication of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller.

A gross generalisation of course, but there was something in the fjords at that time…both the main Swedish film producers were able to move the form on through a series of dramatic adaptations of classic stories and they were also adept at comedy. Not so much slapstick as “social”. And, in Thomas Graal’s Best Film (Thomas Graals Basta Film), Stiller produced what was not only one of the first films about film but something that could reasonably be described as post-modern.

Made in 1917 from a script by future director, Gustaf Molander the film stared Victor Sjöström as the eponymous Graal and his wife, Karin Molander as the impish Bessie Douglas.

Even watching a nth generation video the skill of this film is unmistakable and places it ahead of much contemporary comedy: who knew the Swedes were so sophisticatedly sardonic? (that alliterative back-hander is in tribute to my old pen pal from Stockholm!).

The story is based on a lazy scriptwriter who is more interested in pursuing his pretty secretary than polishing off his latest script: "If he weren't the laziest, he might well be the most successful writer of cinema plays....". Bessie leaves in a huff after he takes things just too far and this sets off the story of the film within a film that follows. Thomas decides that the only way to lure Bessie back is to write the story of her imagined life and then get her to play the lead (alongside himself, natch!).

Sounds contrived? But it’s so well acted and put together that you go with it and are never quite sure how Bessie is going to work out until the very end. Throughout there are knowing quips as the mechanics and business of film making is shown in unprecedeneted detail. A cigar-chomping producer casually discards scripts with weary disdain, a stunt man complains about the harness is is wearing to be shown hanging…in the end the crew decide to drop the scene: “if we don’t cut it the censors will anyway!”…Bessie disturbs what looks like an assault but the man on horseback she disrupts is an actor mid-scene. It’s real but it’s not real.

And, it's witty throughout with some crisp inter titles: "Bessie knows nothing whatever about acting, so naturally is filled with ambition to play all the great tragic roles."

If Sjöström was adept at comedy, sending himself up with just the right amount of restraint, his wife was superb. Naturalistic and watchable she throws herself into the role whether it’s her energetic hamminess in pastiching the contemporary dramatic style so prevalent across the Atlantic (and indeed in her husband’s earlier films), her belting smile or knowing looks (occasionally direct to the camera…how arch is that?!).
Throughout Stiller directs with crisp economy and marshals the strands of reality and un-reality well. Graal is driven into the act of creation by his longing to find Bessie again and through his fantasy attains reality…Is that the films’ message?

Only at the very last does Thomas discover that Bessie is of wealthy stock and not the pauper he imagined. She had willingly left home, on many occasions, driven by the need for adventure…in the same way the audience is. We can’t help ourselves from identifying with her for that.

She reads his script and smiles directly at us as she works out how she is going to play out the story and, head thrown back in a beaming smile, we hope it’s the same ending we would write.

Thomas Graal was so successful that a sequel was made in quick order, Thomas Graals Bästa Barn (Thomas Graal’s Best Child) in 1918.

Featuring largely the same cast and crew, Best Child picks up the story with Thomas and Bessie’s wedding. It’s as well made as the first film but lacking the twists and turns of logic. It’s more of a serious attempt at comedy but still full of whimsy and adult themes. The parents are like children and behave as such for as long as they can get away with it, Bessie mimics Isadora Duncan (a hippie well before her time) and Thomas tries to avoid responsibility like a modern man-child!

Ultimately their child grows them up: a very contrary conclusion in line with the impact “unreal” cinema has on them in the first film.

Stiller and Sjöström went on to greater things but these films show them gaining full control of the medium and approaching the top of their game.

It is therefore, particularly annoying that neither film is commercially available even though decent quality prints seem to exist. So...Kino. Criterion...BFI, anybody...get your act together please!

As Thomas Graal says..."like me the poor curtain is consumed with burning emotion!" ...exactly!!

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