Gösta Berlings Saga / The Atonement of Gösta Berling / The Legend of Gösta Berling / The Story of Gösta Berling
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 12 September 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
Reviews: Sir Arne’s Treasure
Peter Cowie calls The Saga of Gösta Berling the crowning achievement and the ironic swan-song of the Swedish silent cinema. Now restored to its epic three-hour length, it’s also famed for introducing Greta Garbo (originally billed as Greta Gustafsson) to the world. But sadly it’s not quite worth its reputation. It’s the least interesting of the three silent Stiller films that Kino has released together; its epic length is probably too long for its ponderous and rather turgid tale; and Garbo fans will be disconcerted by the fact that, in spite of her star billing on the outside of the DVD packaging, she’s not quite the Garbo of her American films—here, she’s rather pudgy, indulges in some desperately over-emotive acting, and only plays a minor, though crucial, character absent for a large proportion of the story.
That story, set in the early nineteenth-century, does have its interest, particularly in the flawed nature of its hero Gösta Berling (played by heart-throb Lars Hanson, who like Stiller and Garbo would be soon lured away to Hollywood, ending up starring opposite Lillian Gish in The Wind under the direction of another Swede, Victor Sjöstrom/Seastrom). As revealed by the complex but skilfully managed flashbacks-within-flashbacks structure the film has recourse to on a number of occasions, Berling is a defrocked priest who lost his position due to a too enthusiastic taste for alcohol and has ended up living on the country estate of Ekeby as a “knight,” one of a group of indolent hangers-on.
Adapted from a famous-in-its-day novel by Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf, the film is fairly thick — probably too thick — with incident and interlinking characters, with details at times a little unclear. So, between Berling’s past as a disgraced priest and his present as an Ekeby knight, he is shown being employed as a tutor for heiress Ebba Dohna in a secret plot orchestrated by her evil stepmother to rob her of her inheritance in favour of the latter’s son Henrik. Henrik, meanwhile, is returning from Italy with the Italian Countess Elisabeth (the Greta Garbo character) as his new bride; and a further flashback reveals that some time in the past Berling was tutor to Elisabeth, who fell in love with him.
These romantic complications only thicken as the film progresses, with a further woman added to the mix, Marianne, the daughter of the Dohnas’ neighbour Melchior Sinclaire. But this bevy of beauties circling around the romantic figure of Berling eventually gets reduced to one through one case of wasting-away-unto-death and another of beauty-ravaging smallpox, and True Love wins out in the end.
Gösta Berling himself is played up as a flawed romantic hero. He is an interesting almost-anti-hero in the way he brings disasters upon himself and others through his alcoholism and his uncontrollable temper, and there’s a morbid romanticism about the way he repeatedly dwells on his “doomed” status: “I belong to the ranks of the damned,” “I bring only trouble to all that are good and innocent,” and so forth.
There’s some attempt to develop a theme of the hypocrisy of society towards its outsider figures. One scene of Berling reading from the Bible, followed by a flashback to his confrontation with his parishioners, implies an association between Berling and the figure of Christ taken away for execution. Two women characters, Margarethe Samzelius the owner of Ekeby and Marianne Sinclaire, are both shown as being hypocritically expelled from society by their husband and father respectively. But this theme is fitfully developed and all rather forgotten by the time of the film’s happy end.
The film does come alive with the dramatic, large-scale scene of the burning of Ekeby. (This is Margarethe’s revenge for her humiliation.) Here, Stiller’s directorial skills really come into their own, a reminder of the power of his earlier film Sir Arne’s Treasure. As with that film, what really appeals in The Saga of Gösta Berling are those scenes shot on location, where the added realism — down to the actors’ breath visible in the cold temperatures — brings an extra layer of depth and conviction to the scenes.
First, there’s the pastoral lyricism of Stiller’s depiction of the natural setting of the story: the opening shots of flowing river and lake; the sunlight glistening on the water as Gösta and Ebba walk by; the banks of swaying leaves on either side of the gate to the grave of Ebba’s mother; and, at the end of the film, the wind blowing the leaves as Elisabeth collects flowers in the refuge she finally finds with the Melchiors.
Then, there are the scenes of outdoor dramatic action heightened by Stiller through the dynamism of camera movement. Again and again, the camera tracks with a character in an outdoor setting, as when it keeps with Gösta in the sleigh on his search for the banished Margarethe, with the snow and the lines of thin wintry trees flicking past him. There are numerous striking scenes of characters on the move, such as Margarethe in her sleigh or, later as a banished woman, trudging through the snow; the forward-track after the Melchiors’ sleigh/reverse-track in front of Marianne, desperate in pursuit; or the separate rushes across the frozen lake to the burning Ekeby, by Melchior in his sleigh and Elisabeth on foot.
But the most dramatic of all is Gösta and Elisabeth’s sleigh-ride across the ice. Marked by some rather strange directional mismatches, what starts with a virtual kidnapping of Elisabeth by Gösta turns into a race to escape their pursuit by a pack of ravenous wolves. It’s the highpoint of the film, after which it slowly winds down to its conclusion. This long drawn-out denouement finds Ekeby rebuilt and bequeathed to a tamed and responsible Gösta Berling, but it seems a pity that the real interest of the audience has, frankly, been lost somewhere along the way.