Early & Silent Film

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The Girl from the Marsh Croft / Tösen Frän Stormyrtorpet, Sweden 1917.

Posted by keith1942 on November 21, 2017

 

This film was screened in the ‘A Hundred Years Ago: fifty films of 1917 in 35mm’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. It demonstrates how Swedish cinema in the late teens was a trailblazer for artistic cinema and this was one of the most accomplished titles in the programme . It was directed by Victor Sjöström and it was in many ways typical of his work, with the redemption of a key character after a fall from  grace. There were some parallels with his later masterpiece Ingmarssönerna (1919). It was also typical of Swedish cinema of the period focussing on a romance that was inhibited by class and moral prejudices.

The film was the first adaptation in Swedish cinema of a story by Selma Lagerlöf [Ingmarssönerna was also adapted from one of her novels]. This famous and popular author won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1909  “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”. Her works were a staple of Swedish filmmaking in the 1920s. This title was adapted from a tale in a collection of short stories. It seems that there are six other later film adaptations, including [intriguingly] a German production directed by Douglas Sirk. They would have to be very well done to surpass this version.

Lagerlof’s story is really a novella with six parts. The narrative opens in a court room where Helga, daughter of a poor family, is taking a paternity case against a wealthier famer in whose service she conceived. The case is never bought to a conclusion because, despite her determination to receive acknowledgment and support, she cannot stand by and watch the man who fathered her child commit perjury. Before the court case it appears that Helga has been the recipient of moral indignation but her unselfish act in the trial changes many attitudes among the village folk. Helga and her parents live in a croft on a hill above the village and close the forest. Here is she is visited by Gudmund, the son of a relatively affluent farmer, who was at the courthouse and was impressed with Helga’s virtuous conduct. She is offered service caring for his disabled mother.

Meanwhile Gudmund is courting Hildur, the daughter of the most affluent farmer in the village. They become engaged but Hildur, a relatively unsympathetic character, insists that Helga’s service is ended before she will marry Gudmund. Helga returns to the Marsh Croft, though she continues to work of Gudmund’s parents with washing and sewing.

Following a stag night in the city the drunken Gudmund is involved in a brawl. It appears that he may be responsible for the death of a participant. Thus Gudmund also falls from grace and is faced with a moral choice akin to that made earlier by Helga. It is the resolution of this trauma that also bring resolution to t the romantic drama.

Lagerlof’s novella is narrated in a third person, providing the dialogue of the characters but with their actions and inner thoughts described by the narrator. As the Nobel citation suggests there is a particular emphasis on the spiritual and moral aspects. But the story is also imaginative as the writer describes in detail the interior and exterior settings. The croft and it environs are especially well presented. And Lagerlöf spends time describing particular actions such as the wood chopping that both Helga and Gudmund perform.

The Swedish film version follows the plot fairly closely. However, since we watch the charterers they are far more personalised than in the written version . And the film uses only some of the narrative comments relying on performance to suggest the moods and feelings of the characters. The prejudices in the village community seem slightly starker in the film: only a select number of the inhabitants demonstrate a change of heart after Helga’s virtuous act.  The film presents particular actions as sequences in close detail as in the book: the sequences of chopping wood are important and the wedding preparations are also shown in full detail. The film does omit one interesting facet of the book: Lagerlof’s novella makes use of a traditional rural ritual involving ashes and a sense of home which is left out of the film. As with the novella the illegitimate child is rather conveniently left aside.

Sjöström with cinematographer Henrik Jaenzon makes a fine job of the filming. As is the case in Swedish cinema of the period the use of landscape is excellent, including both lakes, forests and mountains. The camera shows us both the village and its court house and the farm of the Hildur family which is effectively contrasted with that of Helga’s, high up and alongside the forest. The settings, both interior and exterior, are carefully crafted and the furnishings and objects delineate the characters. So the rich hustle and bustle of the wedding sets the scene for Gudmund’s confession. At another point a shot of Helga as she prepares the coffee for the visit by the Hildur family emphasises the social contrasts.

There is frequent deeps staging, well served by the deep focus available at the period. In one sequence Gudmund father, set back in the frame. watches his son, set forward, as he searches for an incriminating object. The Production Design by Axel Esbensen and Art Direction by Axel Esbensen enables the blending of locations and sets effectively.

Helga is played by Great Almrof, a popular and busy actress of the period. She is really convincing as the young woman with a strong moral sense and behaviour. Lars Hansen, in one of his early roles, is equally effective as Gudmund, a character who displays the impetuosity and exuberance that was the common characterisation played by Hanson. The pair were teamed together again in Maurice Stiller’s equally fine Song of the Scarlet Flower / Sången om den eldröda blomman (1919). The supporting cast are good as well. Karin Molander does well with the unsympathetic part of Hildur: we saw her again later in the week in Stiller’s Thomas Graals Best Film / Thomas Graals Bästa Film (1917).

The Catalogue entry, by Jon Wengström, noted that

‘The film was a critical and commercial success, not least in the US where more than forty prints were distributed. The “National Board of Motion Picture review” in January 1919 praised the film for its “excellent photography, unusual acting, exceptional technical handling” and its excellent moral effect”.

 

 

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