A Man There Was

Directed by Victor Sjöström, Sweden, 1917
Victor Sjöström, August Falck, Edith Erastoff, and Bergliot Husberg Production AB Svenska Biografteatern Print Source Swedish Film Institute

Presented at SFSFF 2017
Live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble
Essay by Jay Weissberg

What’s immediately striking about Terje Vigen, released in the U.S. as A Man There Was, is the power of its imagery. Stripped to its bare essence, the film is a visual encomium to the sea, or rather, to a Romantic understanding of the sea’s might as wedded to man’s emotional state. Based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen published in 1862, before the great dramatist’s international fame was secured, the film is remarkably true to the original source, stripped down in parts, amplified in others, yet achieving a thrilling balance between elemental storytelling and bold scenes using nature’s power to enhance interior intensity in more than merely decorative ways. While the word “painterly” is frequently used to describe Terje Vigen, it’s painterly only in terms of composition, since its dramatic effects depend on movement, exemplified by the constantly shifting silvery glints on the sea’s choppy surface; there’s nothing static here even though the film is not noted for camera movements. No wonder it is credited with launching the Golden Age of Scandinavian Cinema.

The director and star Victor Sjöström (called “Seastrom” in America) was already talked about as one of Sweden’s most accomplished filmmakers, especially following Ingeborg Holm (1913), lauded for its incisive sense of drama. Clearly Sjöström was already sensitive to how nature can be used to evoke mood, and an affinity for sea settings may be surmised from his films The Ships that Meet (Skepp som mötas) and Predators of the Sea (Havsgamar), both from 1916. Yet something revolutionary happened during the making of Terje Vigen, when the director’s skills for combining a palpable sense of realism with a refined eye for pictorial effect came together in a way that had a lasting influence on Nordic cinema.

It’s been said that Sjöström was going through a difficult period: his first marriage was ending, news from the battlefields of the First World War was less than cheering, and he needed a break from his grueling schedule acting and directing in both theater and film. A cycling trip fit the bill, so he set off for his birthplace in western Sweden and then continued south to Norway, heading to Grimstad, the town of Ibsen’s teenage years where the writer’s encounters with an elderly ship pilot named Svend Hanssen Haaø ultimately led to the composition of Terje Vigen, set among islands off Grimstad’s coast. The trip wasn’t the catalyst for making the movie, as producer Charles Magnusson already had a script by the fall of 1915, written by newcomer (and future director) Gustaf Molander, but Sjöström’s time in the location that inspired Ibsen must have significantly influenced the film’s conception.

The poem was a patriotic ode that experienced a resurgence of popularity following Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905. Using a bookended structure, it tells of a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars who braved the British blockade (Denmark and Norway were allied with the French) to smuggle food to his wife and child on the island of Håøya. Caught by an eighteen-year-old English captain, Terje is imprisoned for five years; when he returns home he learns his wife and child died of starvation (Ibsen’s terse lines are moving in their simplicity: “His house was a stranger’s / and how they fared / those two, that was easily found / The husband forsook them, and nobody cared / they came to the plot that the paupers shared / in the parish burial-ground”). Some years later, having aged into a “remarkably grizzled man,” Terje rescues an English yacht in distress, only to discover that its owner is the self-same captain who heartlessly imprisoned him earlier.

Magnusson negotiated the rights to the poem from Ibsen’s son Sigurd in 1915 (a little-known German adaptation, produced by Deutsche Bioscop, was made in 1910), and, in the summer of 1916, Sjöström was scouting locations among the islands of Stockholm’s outer archipelago, the same general area where he had shot Predators of the Sea. Shooting began in August and was budgeted as one of the most expensive Swedish productions to date—three times more than the average feature. For Magnusson, the idea was to make fewer but bigger films, a gamble that paid off so well it transformed the entire industry. Opening in late January 1917 in Sweden and Denmark, and ten days later in Norway, the film received glowing reviews, including from respected culture critics not generally given to praising motion pictures. It’s said that audience members recited stanzas during the screenings—prompted no doubt by intertitles taken directly from the poem—and spectators of the time would undoubtedly have felt an additional emotional tug given similar blockades then in force in the North Sea.

Like the poem, the film starts with an older Terje (played with iconic gravitas by the director himself), his eyes blazing as he gazes at the sea. Sjöström sits in a darkened cottage then rises and leans out the window as the waves pound against the rocks just outside; the effect is electric, whipping up the melancholy sailor’s soul into a roiling passion matched by nature’s untamed majesty. The man behind the lens was the great Julius Jaenzon (credited as J. Julius to avoid confusion with his cameraman brother Henrik), already on his thirteenth film with Sjöström; their fruitful collaboration later included The Outlaw and His Wife and The Phantom Carriage, not to mention Jaenzon’s work with Mauritz Stiller on Sir Arne’s Treasure and The Saga of Gösta Berling, among other key titles in the history of Swedish cinema.

While honoring the tenor of the Ibsen text, Sjöström and Jaenzon add their own imaginative interpretations, such as a memorable image of a pastor from behind, preaching to his disconsolate flock on a rocky slope. In addition, the editing matches the poem’s cleanly economical drive, most notably in the tense sequence in which Terje desperately tries to escape the approaching British skiff, his furious rowing cut back and forth with the rowing of his pursuers. Further stylistic traces can be found in Christian Krogh’s illustrations for the 1905 edition of the poem. The Swedish Film Institute’s newly color-graded print gloriously captures the tinting and toning of the original release, switching in parts from cerulean blue to a stunning magenta.

World War I prevented the film’s release outside Scandinavia until 1919, and it wasn’t until February 1920 that A Man There Was could be seen in the United States. The press raved, with W. Stephen Bush in The Billboard calling it “Truly a masterpiece” and most everyone agreeing with Burns Mantle in Photoplay: “It is so simple as to story and continuity and cutting and acting that one wonders why some of our output, not nearly so mighty, should use up so much energy and emerge with so much ostentation.” The one criticism, nearly universal, was that the intertitles were too dense, leading to the sales agent, L.E. Miller of Radiosoul Films, to place full-page advertisements in the trade publications announcing that the critics’ voices had been heard and the intertitles were being cut down and rewritten. One wonders, though, how much Miller really understood his product given that he placed it as a double feature with Mack Sennett’s Down on the Farm, starring Ben Turpin and the dog-and-cat pairing of “Teddy” and “Pepper.” To make the evening’s entertainment complete, the Broadway Theatre included a “girlie” revue called “The Ushers’ Quartet,” featuring four young ladies “chosen from the personnel of the various Moss theaters.” The mind boggles.

A MAN THERE WAS was receded by FIFTY MILLION YEARS AGO (Service Film Corporation, 1925) in which millions of years of evolution unfold in seven minutes of remarkable stop-motion animation. Print courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences