From Fritz Lang to Victor Sjöström: Film noir elements in Scandinavian silent films


Film noir elements in Scandinavian silent films

When present-day audiences think about the film adaptations of well-known bestseller stories of such authors as Henning Mankell, Håkan Nesser, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø it may be intriguing for them to discover that the nowadays extremely popular genre of Nordic Noir, or Scandinavian noir as it is sometimes referred to – mainly comprising crime fiction written in the Scandinavian countries -, shares several common features with its ‘older brother’ film noir, not only because it displays characteristics of dark mood, low-key lighting schemes and a distinctive, realistic visual style, but because they both are greatly influenced by the artistic movement flourishing in the 1910s and 1920s called German Expressionism that involved painting, photography, theatre and cinema.   

Fleeing from the growing Nazi power, the practitioners of the Expressionist movement – among whom we can find Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Karl Freund, Edgar G.Ulmer and Josef von Sternberg – quickly established themselves in the blooming Hollywood film industry in order to create such chef-d’oeuvre as M (1931), Private Detective 62 (1933), The Black Cat (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Shanghai Express (1932) and Devil is a Woman (1935) which opened the door before the productions of 1940s and 1950s, generally regarded as the ‘classic period’ of American film noir and contributed to the creation of such works within and outside of the States as Murder, My Sweet (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Big Combo (1955), Chinatown (1974), Lost Highway (1997), Tirez sur le piansist directed by Truffaut in 1960, The Castle of Sand (1974, Japan), The Square (2008, Australia), to only name a few of the most important movies.

The birth of Scandinavian film noir

While in the United States the literary sources of film noir included works of American detective and crime fiction (among the most notable ones, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Caine, Red Harvest (1929) and The Glass Key (1942) by Dashiell Hammett, or The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler), in the central Scandinavian countries the very first silent films and film noirs were mostly based on contemporary fiction written by the most excellent Scandinavian authors of the time, including Swedish poet Gustaf Fröding, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and Norwegian writer Bjørn Bjørnsson.

In 1917 Nobel prize winner author, Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) and A-B Svenska Biografteatern made a deal to adapt at least one Lagerlöf novel for film every year.  Lagerlöf authored several high quality novels and prior to The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921) director and actor Victor Sjöström (1879-1960) – who had established himself in Hollywood in 1922 – had already made the adaption of Ingmarssönerna (Sons of Ingmar, 1919) which had been well received by the audience and Lagerlöf herself. Director Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928) who basically started his career with a scam and later discovered actress Greta Gustafsson (known to the public as Greta Garbo) accomplished his major success by – with the help of cameraman Julius Jaenzon and scriptwriter Gustaf Olander – creating the film versions of two of Lagerlöf’s epic novels Sir Arne’s Treasure (Herr Arnes pengar, 1919) and The Tale of Gunnar Hede (Gunnar Hedes Saga, 1923), works which the writer herself found too poetic and scarcely faithful to the her original piece.

These movies already owned a special other-wordly quality and enchanted their viewers with a unique cinematography involving photography on location showing off the untamed beauty of the Swedish landscapes. Lagerlöf was initially not particularly fond of the idea to adapt her novel’s elements of mysticism. She gradually began to disagree in regard to how her works were to be presented on screen and asked Svenska Filmindustri in Rasunda to replace Stiller. During the filming of Gösta Berling’s Saga (Gösta Berlings saga, 1924), Stiller wished to include a scene that had not appeared in the novel and chose to feature the legendary Swedish silent film actress Greta Garbo (1905-1990).

The Phantom Carriage

According to the legend in Victor Sjöström’s innovative silent classic, on each New Year’s Eve the last person who dies needs to take over the role of the coachman of the chariot of Death and collect souls of the deceased during that year.

Sjöström started his career as a comic actor and gained international fame by starring in Ingmar Bergman’s well-known piece from 1957, Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället). Although the typical film noir elements, motifs of occultism and mysticism which also occur in the film adaption Selma

Lagerlöf-novel – Gösta Berling’s Saga (1924) -, the gloomy images of the special, noirish visual style with strong light-dark contrasts are all traceable in this work, The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921) blends poetic and realistic elements and deals as much with social problems, morality issues in the real world as it unravels a Gothic ghost tale which more often than not serves as a base for pieces of film noir. In order to gain a better insight and understanding for the role, Sjöström made his research by visiting the Stockholm slums.

The strongest influence on the director’s style was undeniably the German expressionist movement and the production of such supernatural dramas as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Fritz Lang’s multi-layered creation Destiny in 1921. In addition, movies of the French impressionism also made an impact on Sjöström, not to mention that looking for his possible inspiration in the field of literature, one may discover visible resemblances with the classic story, A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens, especially since – just like in the flashbacks of David, the protagonist of The Phantom Carriage (played by Sjöström himself) -, the story’s main character, Scrooge also needs to revisit certain episodes of his life to learn where he went wrong and he it would be possible to correct it.

Although at the time when the Swedish Film Institute restored the film in 1998, a new score was composed for it in order to underline its creepy mood, The Phantom Carriage does not particularly strike viewers of younger audiences as a classic horror movie, given the fact that it uses old-fashioned special effects and technique to emphasize the supernatural elements which include superimposing see-through images over realistic backgrounds, Still, The Phantom Carriage may be considered as one of the most significant, spectacular and brilliant examples of the presence of film noir in early Scandinavian silent films.

The movie inspired a dozen of literary works and films, among them an excellent play written by Per Olov Enquist (1934- ), featuring a fictive meeting in 1920 between four extremely talented figures in Swedish cultural history – story-teller Selma Lagerlöf, film director Viktor Sjöström, film photographer Julius Jaenzon, and Tora Teje, one of Sweden’s leading actresses of the 1890s – to take a look at Lagerlöf’s initial version of The Phantom Carriage. The theory Enquist implies throughout his book is that the hidden motives behind Selma Lagerlöf’s writing can be traced back to his father alcoholism, and the character of David was partly based on his figure while the innocent and gentle Salvation Army sister may be looked upon as a fictional alter ego of young Lagerlöf.

Witchcraft Through the Ages

Before leaving Danish film industry to work in Germany, filmmaker Benjamin Christensen (1879-1959) reached one of his major accomplishment by creating his 1922 masterpiece, Witchcraft Through the Ages (Häxan). Structured into seven sections and balancing on the edge of different genres – such as documentary and fiction – with exquisitely beautiful imagery and vibrant costumes, the film shares dramatized parts, case studies, information on the occult and on evolution of witchcraft and witch trials in the Middle Ages and in the modern era. Interestingly, the director himself can be seen in the film in a dual role as Satan and the Doctor. The slow-paced but for its age unusually graphic film’s creepiness is well-served by special effects from reverse footage, through puppets, and stop-motion.

The unique and complex blend of various styles also provides a discussion of the motifs and themes of witchcraft, of female roles in society, while later chapters in the film explore the theme of modern day hysteria and how mental illnesses may have been misinterpreted as signs of being a witch several centuries ago. Witchcraft Through the Ages may probably have regarded as inspiration for such works as The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928 by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Furthermore, after seeing the silence-era classic Intolerance by D. W. Griffith, Dreyer got inspired to direct his four-episode historical movie under the title Leaves from Satan’s Book (1920) in which the audience gets the chance of following Satan during the major events of human history as he has been cast out from hell and banished to Earth from where he can return only through a series of temptations.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.