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Back to Nature: A Sjostrom Retrospective Shows the Master in His Elements

Old wave: Terje Vigen
photo: Svensk Filmindustri

Victor Sjostrom, the father figure of Swedish cinema, was already a well-known stage actor when he began directing movies in 1912. Although he came from the theater, he was instrumental in freeing the Swedish screen from theatrical concepts. His themes are elemental—no filmmaker before him integrated landscape so fundamentally into his work. Nature is a mystical, overwhelming force in Sjostrom's most powerful pictures—the sea in Terje Vigen (1917), the mountains in The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), the dust storm in The Wind (1928).

The director was imported to Hollywood in 1923 (his name changed to Seastrom) and signed up by Goldwyn Pictures. He remained on the payroll when the firm was merged into MGM and completed nine features during his seven-year stay in Tinseltown. Three of those that have survived intact are on show in MOMA's rewarding retro, along with restored fragments from three of the incomplete American features.

Fortunately, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind, testaments to Sjostrom's happy collaboration with Lillian Gish, have come down to us complete. The great actress initiated both projects and selected Sjostrom to direct them. She's magnificent as Hester Prynne in Letter, an uneven, melodramatic, and radically truncated adaptation of Hawthorne's novel of intolerance in 17th-century Massachusetts.

She's equally impressive in The Wind, as the demure Southern belle who goes to live with her cousin in a hellish corner of rural Texas and becomes a victim of the elements and the primitive ritual of life. Against the wishes of director and star, the studio tacked on a happy ending, but even with its compromised finale, it's the only one of Sjostrom's American films to stand with his Swedish masterpieces.


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