Two Reviews: Ingeborg Holm & A Man There Was

A Man There Was
Ingeborg Holm

Considering that The Wind and The Phantom Carriage are typically considered Victor Sjöström’s best works, it would perhaps be most obvious and prudent to start there. But I decided to start even earlier with Sjöström, via a collection available from Kino Video. What prompted this decision is the constant criticism of Sjöström that he was “ahead of his time”. Since both The Phantom Carriage (from ’22) and The Wind (from ’28) are amongst Sjöström’s late-period works, I felt it would be interesting to go back to pre-20s Sjöström, and even pre-Birth of a Nation Sjöström to see just how much that criticism applies to his earliest films. In my estimation, the criticism holds up gloriously; both of these films feel far ahead of their time. Ingeborg Holm was released two years before Birth of a Nation, and while it doesn’t quite display Griffith’s technical/directorial mastery, it certainly has a phenomenal sense of narrative focus and drama. Meanwhile, A Man There Was may be one of the earliest examples of cinematic expressionism, and has several shots that rival anything in Murnau’s or Lang’s silent filmography.

Ingeborg Holm

Ingeborg Holm could simply be described as a social drama. It was based on a 1906 play by Nils Krok and caused great controversy in Sweden that lead to debates about social security and changes in poorhouse laws; it was also, supposedly, based on a true story. The film stars Hilda Borgström in the title role as a mother who lives in domestic bliss and simplicity with her family. However, one day her husband takes ill and unexpectedly dies, and Ingeborg finds herself at a loss to support her family. She is finally reduced to the option of joining a workhouse that results in her children being separated from her. When she finds a note stating that her oldest daughter has taken ill, but that her “employers” refuse to pay for a doctor, she has not choice but to tempt her fate, escape, and find her daughter.

Ostensibly, Ingeborg Holm could easily be dismissed as a manipulative melodrama; it contains the classic “a cough means imminent death” moment, and Sjöströmcertainly piles it on when Ingeborg goes mad after her youngest daughter fails to recognize her. But Sjöström balances the more theatrical moments with a great patience that allows the film to steadily build over time, especially during the early scenes of the family’s domesticity. It helps tremendously that the film is so tightly plotted with zero wasted space, so it never outstays its welcome as it moves swiftly from the introduction, to the father’s death, to the poorhouse, to the escape, to the closing scenes of Ingeborg’s madness.

Sjöström is also showing a clear gift for expressive and unique visual ideas. In one incredible scene after the father is recuperating in bed after an aneurism, we see his family in the other room on the far-left background, but suddenly realize that the father is dying in front of our eyes. The contrast between him suddenly struggling with death and the family carrying on blithely and obliviously manages to say visually what would be impossible to express in words. Another strong visual moment finds Ingeborg in the family shop after hours, framed on the very top-left foreground of the frame while the entire right of the frame is bathed in blackness; somewhat reminiscent of the shot in Citizen Kane with Kane in the left foreground typing, and his partner in the far-right background.

As social criticism the film is rather blunt and strangely similar to Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers which also took a turn for the socially conscious when Pickwick and Sam were imprisoned in a poorhouse. Like Dickens’ work, Sjöström is blatantly revealing the injustices and lack of sympathy amongst bureaucracy when dealing with the poor and needy. But the film doesn’t dwell too long on its heavy-handed social agenda and allows the film to slip neatly into a dramatic chase. Like the best (and worst) of classic Hollywood, Ingeborg Holm attempts to mix socially conscious settings and themes with plenty of dramatic action set in a sentimental mode. But what makes the film extraordinary is that it’s doing this long before Hollywood latched on to the right mixture. If you add in lush production and a much grander scale one can almost see the faint etchings of what would become films like Gone with the Wind some 26 years later.

A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

A Man There Was’ original title is Terje Vigen which is based on a poem of the same name by Henrik Ibsen, which in itself created a Norwegian icon out of its protagonist. The poem itself is still read annually at Norwegian festivals. The story was supposedly based on the life of a Norse pilot named Svend Hanssen Haaø, though Ibsen never fully admitted this. The immense popularity of the story resulted in most expensive Swedish film ever made up until that point, and found Sjöström setting what must surely have been a new standard for expressionistic visuals and on-screen action.

The story is simple and finds Sjöström himself playing the title role of Terje Vigen, a man who loves the sea and piloting. After returning home to find that his wife has given birth, Terje decides to give up his dangerous life to support his family. But soon after the Napoleanic wars hit, and the family finds themselves struggling for survival. Terje deides to head out in a small rowboat to get past the blockade and get food. But Terje is captured and imprisoned for many years, and when he finally returns he finds that both his wife and child are dead. Choosing to live in self-imposed exile, Terje later encounters the captain who imprisoned him for all of those years.

As with Ingeborg Holm, A Man There Was is a pristinely plotted piece of economic drama. At a slim 48 minutes it’s impossible to get bored, but it’s equally impossible because Sjöström keeps things perpetually interesting; never taking longer than is necessary to establish a scene, reduce it to its essential components, play it out, and then move on. This isn’t to say that the film is so tight as to be suffocating, as Sjöström seems to intuitively know when to take a break for moments that are purely visual. Perhaps the strongest example finds Terje wandering through a graveyard in silhouette, backlit by the sun, as crucifix gravestones jut out into the open sky from a low angle shot.

The film also features some phenomenal scenes aboard ships, and these appear to be shot on actual ships in water rather than in a studio. Either way, there’s no denying the dramatic punch of the tumultuous waves that pound against the ships. However, the dramatic centerpiece finds Terje swimming for his life against a troop of pursuing soldiers. Despite his near superhuman efforts, they finally manage to take him hostage. In keeping with the film’s MO, the prison scenes are both visually provocative and dramatically precise; serving to develop Terje’s character but lasting no longer than they need to.

The film is also accompanied by intertitles taken from an English translation of Ibsen’s poem, which provides a strong literary backbone to Sjöström’s imagery. The language is simultaneously beautiful and powerful, but it’s matched every step by the images. I wonder what kind of film could be made if the entire poem could be read along (either via titles or audio) along with the film? But even with what’s there, one can’t deny the work’s essential power. Even though it contains some of the melodramatic hallmarks of Ingeborg Holm, it’s, on the whole, much more visually and narratively sophisticated, and Sjöström turns in a riveting, terrifying performance as Terje that he utterly succeeds in pulling off the emotion convincingly.

Ultimately, A Man There Was is a monumental leap forward from Ingeborg Holm (which isn’t bad in itself), and it certainly has me fascinated to see if The Phantom Carriage, from 5 years later, and The Wind, from 10 years later, will be even that much more advanced and powerful.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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