The Saga of Gosta Berling

Directed by Mauritz Stiller, Sweden, 1924
Lars Hanson, Gerda Lundequist, Sixten Malmerfelt, Karin Swanström, Jenny Hasselquist, Ellen Cederström, Greta Garbo, Torsten Hammarén, and Mona Mårtenson Production Svenski Filmindustri Print Source Swedish Film Institute

Presented at SFSFF 2018
Live Musical Accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble

Essay by Farran Smith Nehme

Not only are there countless stories of great talents destroyed by Hollywood, but you could, if you were in a gloomy frame of mind, make a case that this is an overarching theme of the place. With so many tragedies to choose from, it’s hard to stand out. But The Saga of Gösta Berling (Gösta Berlings saga) shows that what happened to director Mauritz Stiller was a special kind of depressing.

Originally released in two parts that ran almost four hours, Gösta Berling was Stiller’s last film as an auteur in control of all aspects of production. He was (along with Victor Sjöström) the most prominent director in Sweden on the strength of films such as Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) and Erotikon (1920). Shot in the historical Swedish province of Värmland over a period of six months, to accommodate the change of seasons, Gösta Berling makes outstanding use of the area’s dense forest scenery and frozen lakes. The movie is based on the debut novel by Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel prize in literature. Its major set pieces include a breathtaking chase across the frozen surface of a lake and a fire scene to rival Gone With the Wind’s burning of Atlanta. It engrosses, moving swiftly despite the long runtime. Gösta Berling is, in fact, marvelous. Yet virtually every time the movie is mentioned it’s for one thing—GarboGarboGarboGarboGarbo.

Gösta Berling was Greta Garbo’s big break, her first substantial film role, and Stiller was her mentor, the man who styled her “Garbo” to replace the “Gustafson” she was born with, which wasn’t exactly a name to quicken the pulse or dominate a marquee. No one who sees Gösta Berling will walk away unimpressed by her. It isn’t hard to tell what made MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who saw the film on a trip to Berlin where it was playing to packed houses, sit bolt upright and demand to meet her.

But from a distance of almost a hundred years, it’s evident that Garbo—only eighteen years old and so beautiful it is said her close-ups made audiences gasp—is just one of many impressive things about Gösta Berling. As the story unfolds, the title’s ex-pastor, played by Lars Hanson, has been defrocked. Gösta’s preaching is so enthralling that his congregation is ready to forgive him for his latest drunken escapade, but then, spurred by idealism and a bridge-burning compulsion that gets him in trouble throughout, Gösta swings into a rousing condemnation of the parishioners’ own chronic boozing. His goose thus self-cooked, he sets out on the road. Stiller films Hanson as a dark speck on the cold forest road, slowly coming forward until his white face becomes the sole pinpoint of life. Gösta, shivering in a thin coat, stops to pick up an injured bird, holds it against himself to warm up, and shuffles on.

An attempt at comprehensive plot summary could send a person into a Gösta-like spiral, but on screen the sprawling network of characters is as vivid as any in Dickens. The film plays rather like an epic about alcoholism. Alcohol fuels Gösta’s downfall and many other calamities in the script, although other sins (lust, pride, sloth …) get a workout as well. Another theme is that of being cast out from society. Gösta is far from the only character to become a pariah. After his defrocking and some other setbacks, he joins a group of carousing Napoleonic War veterans, the “Cavaliers,” the kind of men who drink straight from the bottle and never stand on the floor if a table is available. Failures in life who have nowhere else to go, they have attached themselves to a great estate, Ekeby, ostensibly protecting it but capable of ransacking it if the opportunity arises.

Gösta, the sole handsome face in the group, breaks the hearts of several beautiful young women. “Women will be the death of you, Gösta,” he is informed in one intertitle. “Go drink yourself into oblivion.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Women are the best things in Gösta’s life. Time and again, they rescue him from his latest piece of folly. They have courage and compassion.
Gösta’s first love is a pupil he is hired to tutor, Ebba (Mona Mårtenson), who carries around her prayer book, talks a lot about the wonders of Creation, and falls in love with him. Stiller portrays her as essentially an overdramatic teenager and, when she dies of sorrow upon learning of Gösta’s past, her absence isn’t felt much. Much more interesting is Marianne, a cousin of Ebba, played by the Swedish prima ballerina Jenny Hasselquist. Pretty, vivacious Marianne is kissed by Gösta, with consequences that make the fate of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth look like a picnic in comparison. The sequence in which Marianne, locked out of her own house by her outraged father, wanders through the snow without knowing where to go or what to do, is as harrowing in its way as Lillian Gish’s similar ordeal in Way Down East.

But the true female lead of Gösta Berling is Margarethe, a.k.a. “the Major’s wife,” played by distinguished stage actress Gerda Lundequist, often described as either the Sarah Bernhardt or the Helen Hayes of Sweden. She didn’t make many movies but she commands the screen, capable both of subtlety of expression and the kind of big gestural acting that the more sensational moments require. Margarethe inspires love from her first appearance, in which she is seen slapping the daylights out of a man who is beating a cart horse. She is the mistress of Ekeby, rough and tough when commanding the Cavaliers and her workers, elegant and charming as the hostess of Ekeby’s grand balls.

But, like Gösta himself, Margarethe has a self-destructive streak, as well as a dark secret about how she inherited Ekeby in the first place. Margarethe will eventually be forced out of her home but, one night, returns to burn the place to the ground in an astonishing scene of what Garbo biographer Barry Paris calls “pyromaniacal glee.” The burning involves obviously real flames engulfing very large sets, and actors and stuntpeople dashing around in evident peril. It was a great technical feat for its time and, according to Paris, “the most expensive scene ever shot in Sweden.”

Introduced about forty minutes into the picture is the one woman who manages to save Gösta and have it stick: Countess Elisabeth Dohna, Garbo’s breakout role. When we meet her, she is recently married to a rich nincompoop (Torsten Hammarén). But Elisabeth is warm, understanding, pure, almost Melanie Hamilton (in which case, Gösta is Scarlett). She falls for Gösta immediately, a fact that Stiller loves to emphasize with close-ups of his discovery. Garbo had, he said, a face “ that you get in front of the camera only once in the century.” Made nervous by Stiller whose idea of on-set coaching was to bellow things like “You move your legs like a gatepost!”, Garbo sipped champagne before those close-ups and it turns out that being slightly drunk looks a lot like love. By far the most erotic scene that Hanson and Garbo share is a trek by horsedrawn sled across a vast frozen lake, a pack of wolves in hot pursuit. Stiller’s momentum and pacing are superb, as he cuts back and forth between the sled on the lake, Gösta’s reckless exhilaration, and Elisabeth, who doesn’t know whether she is being rescued or abducted, but is excited by either possibility.

It was a smashing debut, but Garbo’s achievements were ahead of her. For Stiller, that was not the case. Together with Garbo he went to Hollywood, where MGM denied him the opportunity to direct its new star in her first American film, The Torrent. Stiller was assigned to Garbo’s second film, The Temptress, only to be fired by Irving Thalberg when it became clear Stiller only knew how to direct his own way. Stiller wound up at Paramount, where he adjusted enough to American studio strictures to helm the successful Hotel Imperial, starring Pola Negri. Then, he fought with the studio over retakes on The Street of Sin and was replaced by Josef von Sternberg. Depressed and in ill health, Stiller sailed back to Sweden where he died a year later in 1928.

Gösta Berling itself has had a checkered fate. The film was cut down to one part for most international releases, then shortened even more dramatically in 1927 to about half its original length. As the years went by, missing scenes were discovered and replaced, with a 2006 restoration, released in the U.S. by Kino International, running about 184 minutes. The Swedish Film Institute has since located more footage, and the Gösta Berling being screened at the festival is sixteen minutes longer, with its color tinting restored and the intertitles re-created to match the originals.

Go back to the 1990 obituaries for Greta Garbo, amid the tributes to her ineffable screen magic, you’ll notice a recurring bit of trivia: Her favorite of her own films was The Saga of Gösta Berling. She still considered Stiller her greatest director. This restoration, as close to the original 1924 premiere as we are likely to get, offers a fresh opportunity to see why the immortal Garbo held them both in such high regard.

The Matti Bye Ensemble includes Matti Bye, Helena Espvall, Kristian Holmgren, Lotta Johanson, and Laura Naukkarinen.

Jon Wengström, curator of archival film collections at the Swedish Film Institute (SFI), accepted the 2018 Silent Film Festival Award for his and SFI’s contribution to silent film preservation at this presentation.