Early & Silent Film

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The Parson’s Widow / Prästänkan, Sweden 1920

Posted by keith1942 on April 25, 2019

This title was part of the programme, Swedish Challenge: the quality of Scandinavian cinemas in this period meant there was never a challenge in enjoying the films. This is one of the earliest films of Carl Theodore Dreyer that I have seen. Here he is working for AB Svensk Filmindustri. Of his titles that I have seen it has the most light-hearted story. The film is set in C17th Norway and adapted by the director from a short story by Kristofer Janson. The basic plot follows the efforts of theologically trained Söfren (Einar Rød) to obtain a parish incumbency. He needs a stable income so that he can marry his sweetheart Mari (Greta Almroth). However, obtaining a benefice rendered vacant by the death of the incumbent he finds that the rules require him to marry his predecessor’s widow.

The film is divided into five acts. It opens with Söfren and Mari in a verdant setting, the young lovers. We then follow an extended sequence where Söfren must compete with two rivals for the vacancy. Söfren comes from a poor family and so the living is essential if he is to merry Mari. His rivals, Olev and Kurt, are both from more affluent families. We watch as in delightful comic modes the film shows us the travails and successes of the contest. Söfren is not above sabotaging his rivals. But they lack the dynamism that Söfren brings to the exemplar sermon which is judged by the congregation. All three have to preach to a congregation that fills the small church. In delightful scenes, that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Life’s Little Ironies’, Olev and Kurt lull the audience to sleep. Söfren, with a brand of bravado, keeps them wide awakes. These scenes in the church are intercut with shots of Mari as she wait in trepidation for the outcome. All through the film Dreyer has nicely judged counterpoints between the dramatic and the comic. Once Söfren is successful and wins the vacancy he discovers the catch; having to marry the widow of the deceased parson. Uncertain, Söfren goes to the parsonage and succumbs to the pleasures of the food and wine that are his new lot. As Mari remarks later, he has ben ‘bewitched’ [through physical pleasures] by the widow. The rest of the film follows as Söfren adapts different stratagems to inveigle Mari into the household [as his sister] and in a more sardonic tone, to remove the widow he has married.

There are a couple of ‘accidents’ but, this being a comedy, no fatalities. And towards the end of the film we are shown a more sympathetic side of the widow. Her memories of her own romantic youth and the impediments that she encountered point the way to a solution of the predicament. This sets up a satisfying and happy resolution.

The film is beautifully handled with many of the stylistic characteristics of Dreyer on show.

Dreyer emphasises ethnographic realism throughout his film. He shot the whole film in real 17th-century houses at Maihagen, an open-air museum near Lillehammer, not just the exteriors but the interiors too, despite the considerable logistic al difficulties this entailed.” (Notes in Festival Catalogue).

Extras were played local people in the area.

Geroge Schnéevoigt

Visually the film is a real pleasure. The interiors are convincing and the exteriors have that sense of authentic nature that graced Scandinavian cinema in this period. The cinematography, by Geroge Schnéevoigt, is very fine. Dreyer himself both scripted and edited the film. The cast are equally good. Einar Rød’s Söfren offers a rather passive lover which assists in much of comic business: a man clearly out of his depth away from the pulpit. Greta Almroth is the somewhat long-suffering fiancée facing the travails with patience. I had previously seen her in Victor Sjöström’s The Girl from Marsh Cottage / Tösen frân Stormyrtorpet (1917) where, as Helga, moral issues stood between her and happiness. She has a delightful screen presence. The widow is played by Hildur Carlberg who give the change in character of the woman real conviction .

The film has been restored and transferred to a DCP with a frame rate of 18 fps. Not a fan of digital transfers this look really good, one could imagine one was watching a 35mm print, including the tin tin g and toning. The Scandinavian archive do seem to set the quality standard for working with digital. John Sweeney added to the pleasures with a fine accompaniment.

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