Gosta Werner: Film historian and the world's oldest living film director
Wednesday 21 October 2009
From a long and influential career as a film director and historian, Gosta Werner is remembered abroad for three acclaimed short films of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Midvinterblot (Midwinter Sacrifice, 1946), The Train (1948) and To Kill a Child (1952), which were received at the time as marking the emergence of an important new talent. He was the world's oldest living film director.
Midvinterblot, the first of Werner's films to be screened abroad, was described by Richard Griffith in his 1949 revision of The Film Till Now as "One of Sweden's principal contributions since sound"; and nearly 30 years after he saw it at the Edinburgh Festival the impression it had made on Basil Wright remained indelible when he recalled it in The Long View (1974). Anticipating the extraordinary conclusion of The Wicker Man, Midwinterblot depicts gory human sacrifice in a chill winter landscape accompanied by the relentless beat of drums, creating what Forsyth Hardy described in Scandinavian Film (1952) as "an experiment in sound and picture which excitingly conveyed the mystic atmosphere of Stone Age blood sacrifices".
Midvinterblot was entirely without dialogue or commentary, as was the impressionistic The Train, in which, in Hardy's words, "using a train as a symbol, he visualised life as a journey". Much of Werner's subsequent work likewise tended, according to the film historian Peter Cowie, to shun narration, "relying instead on natural sounds and music to suggest a mood and to dictate the pace of a picture".
Graduating from Lund University in 1930, Werner was one of the founders in 1929 of the pioneering film society, the Lund Film Studio, which he chaired between 1932 and 1935. From 1932-34 he was a journalist in Stockholm. He had worked as assistant on a couple of films in 1931 and later found employment as an advertising manager and text translator for various studios, in which capacity he edited about 600 foreign-language films between 1934 and 1946. He also wrote a couple of scripts before directing his first short in 1943, followed by several wartime public information films.
Between 1948 and 1955 he made six features, but none matched the impact achieved by his short To Kill a Child, from a story by Stig Dagerman. Wright described it as having "the same compelling quality as Midvinterblot", the action drawing us inexorably to a fatal road accident involving a child, of which the narrator has forewarned us. "By choosing a beautiful summer day and exquisitely composing all his shots," Wright observed, "Werner adds to the gruesomeness."
He made shorts regularly until the late 1960s, including City Twilight (1955), a glowing Eastmancolor evocation of Stockholm's neon signs at dusk commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the light bulb manufacturer Lumalampan, which received the Grand Prix at the 1956 Montevideo Film Festival; Living Colour (1961), depicting the work of the artist Eric H. Olson; and Waiting Waters (1965), an interior monologue shot in two long takes based on a story by Lars Ahlin, with Anita Bjork as a woman standing by the waterside contemplating suicide while reflecting on her life, and particularly the men in it.
By now he was also researching and writing about Swedish film history, especially the silent era, trawling archives in search of lost Swedish silents. His books included a monograph on the director Mauritz Stiller in 1969 and, the following year, a history of the Swedish cinema. During the 1970s he was an associate professor at Stockholm University and in 1988 was appointed Professor of Film Studies. He continued to make occasional shorts and documentaries, including feature-length portraits of the Swedish silent directors, Victor Sjostrom (1981) and Mauritz Stiller (1987); the eerie Den Roda Flacken (Blood and Lipstick), nominated for a Golden Bear in the Best Short Film category at the 1996 Berlin festival; and his final short, Spokskepp (Ghost Ship, 1998), made when he was 90.
Gosta Werner, film director and film historian: born Ostra Vemmenhog, Sweden 15 May 1908; married 1935 Kaj Bjorkdahl; died Stockholm 20 July 2009.
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