Film Studies: Touching, noble, subtle, spiritual - he was the true father of cinema

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The Independent Culture

There is an embarrassment in film history that many film buffs are shy of discussing. After all, they tend to the view that nothing must be said or done that puts the movies in a bad light. Thus, it is a medium made by and for heroes. The embarrassment is DW Griffith.

There is an embarrassment in film history that many film buffs are shy of discussing. After all, they tend to the view that nothing must be said or done that puts the movies in a bad light. Thus, it is a medium made by and for heroes. The embarrassment is DW Griffith.

Today, just as 50 years ago, the novice who comes to film studies is told to get a good grasp of Mr Griffith, but for whom there might have been no mature, full-length pictures. Well, there's some truth in it all. Griffith did help develop a grammar for film narrative in the years before the First World War. With The Birth of a Nation (1915), he persuaded the English-speaking audience to sit still for feature-length stories.

And, lo and behold, there are people who can watch The Birth of a Nation and see only the edited suspense, the sensitivity of new camera angles, the isolating brilliance and emotion of close-ups, and so on. But it is a puzzle for others how that fond scrutiny can go on without the viewer also noting the terrible racism of the film, the monstrous sentimentality and the other effects that The Birth of a Nation had upon the USA. Yes, the movie gave birth to the theatrical business of movie-going - it also did a lot to resuscitate lynching as an American hobby. In short, DW Griffith was surely important, but do not fall for the notion that he was a hero.

All the more reason to get yourself to the National Film Theatre in these coming weeks, for in the famous years of Griffith there was someone who stands up to historical scrutiny far better, a real artist, a fascinating man and someone whose career extends into modern times. Griffith, on the other hand, was so archaic, so restricted in his vision, that he was washed up by the late Twenties.

I am talking about Victor Sjöström (1879-1960), only four years younger than Griffith, a poet compared with the American barnstormer, and a man whose own life would make a great movie. So adopt a new principle, if you will: the father of cinema... Victor Sjöström.

The story goes something like this: Sjöström was born in Silbodal, Sweden, the son of a man who was a successful timber merchant. But a financial slump ruined the father's business and in dire poverty he took all the family to America while Victor was still a boy. The father flourished again in the new world, but his nature had changed; somehow the zeal of capitalist dedication had turned him into a tyrant. The mother died, and while still in his early teens Victor went back to Sweden alone. He schooled himself and at 16 (the year his father died) he decided to become an actor (his mother's old ambition). He worked in the theatre with some success for he was tall and handsome in a very rugged way. And in the very early years of the 20th century, he began to make a few short films as an actor. Rapidly he became excited, and knew that he had to direct.

It is said that Sjöström directed about 40 feature films in Sweden, of which about a quarter survive. And I have only ever seen a few of them myself. But on the strength of that handful I am confident that Sjöström deserves the title of the cinema's first master (his closest rival, incidentally, may be the fellow Swede, Mauritz Stiller - both men were identified and hired by Charles Magnusson, the founding impresario of Swedish film).

The first part of the NFT season seems to have everything that survives from these years: Terje Vigen (1917), about a fisherman whose livelihood is interrupted by the English naval blockade during the Napoleonic war. It's a melodrama, with Sjöström acting, but what is startling is the film's commitment to the real sea and the wildness of nature. Griffith regarded the open air as another kind of set; Sjöström's films are loaded with a spiritual feeling for nature. Then there is Ingeborg Holm (1913), where Hilda Borgström plays a widowed mother who loses her children.

And then Berg-Ejvind och hans Hustru (1917, The Outlaw and his Wife), an Icelandic saga in which a couple have to live in the wilds.

These are "silent" films, and no viewer should expect them to throw off all the melodramatic conventions of American silent film. But the story-telling is as subtle as it was with Griffith, the acting is more restrained, and the human content is both more touching and more noble. But, again, what seems most startling in these films is the way they seldom creak with staginess or stage sets, and are so often inspired by the relationships between people and nature.

It's my guess that there are gems still to be discovered, especially the films Sjöström made with the writer Selma Lagerlöf. But as the Swedish film industry declined, so Sjöström accepted invitations from Hollywood. He changed his name to Seastrom and had a terrific commercial hit at MGM with He Who Gets Slapped (1924), with a cast that included John Gilbert, Norma Shearer and the great Lon Chaney, who plays a scientist who has fallen in the world and been reduced to the level of a circus clown.

For a few years he was a top American director (rising as Griffith went into decline), and he directed Lillian Gish in a version of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1926) and Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman (1928). In fact, Gish was rather more appreciative of Seastrom than was Garbo, and the American actress called for Seastrom to direct her in The Wind - this is not just Seastrom's best work; for many people it is the greatest silent film ever made. I cannot commend The Wind (1928) too highly. Set in the dustbowl and filmed under merciless conditions in the Mojave Desert, The Wind has Gish as a woman who marries badly, is raped, and driven to murder. Yes, it's an excruciating portrait of ordeal, but the psychological depth is uncanny.

Sjöström was only 50 at his peak. He directed a few more films, but essentially he returned to Europe and then in the early 1940s he became director of Svensk Film Industri, the organisation that developed so many great actors, actresses and directors like Ingmar Bergman. Sjöström was the young director's guide and patron and in 1957 he agreed to play the old man whose reveries prompt the structure of Wild Strawberries. He was close to 80, and he was a bit of a drinker and something of a complainer. But Bergman's autobiography has a magical passage on how Sjöström - in a modern masterpiece - had to do the close-up in which his character feels the past. He turned away for a moment, cast off bad temper and came back to the camera with what is still one of the most haunting close-ups in the history of film. A great man.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'Victor Sjöström: Cinema's First Master. Part 1: The Swedish Years': NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), Tuesday to 29 June

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