Sunday, 5 February 2012

The deserving poor… Ingeborg Holm (1913)

“This silent film thing, it’s just people trying to be's like watching the TV with the sound turned down,” a friend of mine recently suggested.

He's entitled to his opinion, but this is symptomatic of our attempts to explain our fascination to a world that can find even The Artist confusing. Is a film “incomplete” without dialogue?

The majority of communication is through body language, far more so than through the sounds of the language we use. And “silent” movies not only have words they also have music, often wonderfully moving and superbly interwoven with the story and emotional tempos of the films they partner (take another bow Stephen Horne, who I saw play wonderfully alongside the excellent First Born last week).

All that matters, at the end of the day, is that the film moves you. It can make you laugh or marvel at the skill of the actors and directors and it can make you gasp at the real-life dangers involved in the stunts. It can also move you to tears.

Watching Victor Sjöström’s 1913 Ingeborg Holm, I was initially concerned that it was going to come off a poor second to Benjamin Christensen's polished and inventive Mysterious X which I had viewed the previous evening.

Made slightly earlier than the Danish film, Ingeborg Holm also seemed to be not as well preserved and, for the opening moments at least, looked a little slow in comparison. A family is shown enjoying a day out at their allotment and then the parents discuss the financing of the husband’s long dreamt of grocery store.

Everything is deliberate and the details of family life unfold almost in real time.

Then, without warning, everything changes when the husband suffers a seizure and becomes bedridden. Initially it seems like there may be hope as the wife keeps the shop running and the husband is seen to recover.

Then, as his family play happily away in their parlour, he dies and the film really begins.

His wife, played by Hilda Borgström, attempts to carry on the shop with the help of an unreliable and dishonest assistant. Very quickly all the stock and the money is gone and she is bankrupt.

Unable to see a way forward, she calls on the state for help and is rewarded with a tiny income which forces her to live in the workhouse whilst her three children are farmed out to foster parents. Things get worse as the reality of the workhouse conditions kick in: the casual cruelty of the manager, the drunkenness of the fallen and the hopelessness of nearly everyone there.

One of Ingeborg’s children falls ill and requires an operation. The workhouse management refuse to pay and Ingeborg escapes on a desperate quest to find her daughter. Unwell herself and ill-equipped for the rigours of travel, Ingeborg finds her daughter and is so exhausted she can barely stay conscious to watch her.

She is returned to the workhouse in shame as the police put in an invoice to cover the cost of her capture. All seems helpless but it gets worse. Ingeborg’s youngest child is bought in on a routine visit but can no longer recognise its mother.

It is too much and Ingeborg loses her mind.

All hope is gone and things remain this way for many years. Then, sailing back to Sweden comes Inge’s son. Now grown up and making his way in the world he is determined to see his mother again. He carries a picture she gave him when the family was broken up. He expects to find the same woman…but it seems that, though alive, she is far gone.

You’ll have to watch the film to find out if Sjostrom conjours anything resembling a happy ending out of all this. Needless to say it is emotional and the fact that you care so much says everything about the story, the telling and the acting.

Hilda Borgström is simply amazing. She is a naturalistic and expressive player who pitches her reactions perfectly. Later to star in equally impressive form, opposite Sjöström in The Phantom Carriage, Borgström is another Scandinavian whose style was perfectly suited to film. Already in her early 40’s when the film was made she had many years of stagecraft behind her and it showed. A trained ballet dancer, she combined her grace and poise with a subtle emotional sense that tells an horrific story believably.

This story could have so easily have been overwrought but it hits hard and true. A lot of this is also down to the expert direction of Sjöström himself. There is less camera movement than with Christensen, but some of his outdoor sequences are lovely to view whilst he also makes good use of dark and minimally lit rooms as the story itself gets darker.

He contains the story within strict locational boundaries and cuts well to show the double strands of the police pursuit and Inge’s escape. At the end he crafts an authentic and plausable denoument.

Apparently based on an actual family case, Ingeborg Holm helped to generate a debate in Sweden which led to reform of social welfare systems. 99 years later, we face the same debates about the “deserving poor”…

Ingeborg Holm is available on a nifty Kino DVD alongside another Sjöström classic, A Man There Was. Later for that, but silent “twofers” don’t come much better than this and you shouldn’t hesitate to purchase.


  1. Brilliant, utterly fascinating post.
    I really should comment here more often and I don't know why I don't.
    I try to keep up with dozens of blogs, but if someone said to me they only had time to read one, so which in my opinion is the best... for insight, variety and surprise, it would be this one.

  2. Matthew - I really appreciate that! Although now I feel like I should work harder on the proofing bit!

    I would also say that Movietone News is required reading! You latest piece on Walter Sickert in Bath is a stunner! I could reciprocate with Capt. W. E. Johns, Biggles and Hertford but it won't be quite the same ;-)

    Ithankyou (very much)!