The most influential Swedish filmmaker of the silent period was born in Finland of Russian-Jewish parentage. When Moshe Stiller was drafted into the czar’s army, he fled to Sweden and, as Mauritz Stiller, established himself as a stage actor and director. In 1912 he became a part of the expanding Swedish film industry. Stiller’s career has always been distorted by the weight of his purported Svengali-esque relationship with his discovery, Greta Garbo, and his disproportionate reputation as the director of the film that launched her career, The Atonement of Gosta Berling (1924).
Berling is just one of several heavyweight extravaganzas in MOMA’s 13-film tribute, which includes newly restored and tinted prints of four Stiller features. This period drama about a dissolute, defrocked pastor redeemed by the love of a beautiful Italian girl lost more than an hour and much of its coherence in previously released versions. The 183-minute re-edit on view clears up some of the plot and contains a few set pieces of epic grandeur, but still remains ponderous and episodic. Such is certainly not the case with Erotikon (1920), an insolent romp about the extramarital affairs of the wife of a preoccupied entomologist. It was a huge success; Lubitsch later acknowledged its influence on his own Hollywood comedies. Even better is Thomas Graal’s Best Film (1917), a mischievous showbiz satire—one of the first movies ever about the movies. The earliest dramatic feature in the program, Vingare (1916), a tale of muted homosexual love, is one of the first serious films made anywhere on a gay theme.
In The Treasure of Arne (1919) and Gunnar Hede’s Saga (1923), Stiller’s heroes play out their dramas against breathtaking landscapes that themselves become major characters in the narrative. Both were photographed by Julius Jaenzon, the resident genius cinematographer of early Swedish cinema; both star the radiant, unsung Mary Johnson, the most ethereal of all Swedish actresses. The wildly beautiful The Treasure of Arne ends with Johnson’s funeral procession—a snake-like column of black-robed figures moving over an ice-covered bay. Its striking imagery would be echoed 25 years later at the end of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. The magical Gunnar Hede’s Saga, Stiller’s most visionary work, moves effortlessly back and forth between the realm of realism and hallucination, achieving the quality of trance in some scenes. Its highlight is an amazing sequence that suggests an epic western set in the frozen north: When Gunnar (Einar Hanson) is rounding up a reindeer herd, a tremendous stampede breaks out, and he’s dragged by a crazed stag over ice and through miles of woodland until he’s unconscious. The film’s more tranquil scenes, involving a troupe of wandering players, were apparently not lost on Bergman when he made Sawdust and Tinsel.
Louis B. Mayer saw Gosta Berling. MGM beckoned. Stiller and Garbo arrived in Hollywood in 1925, following Stiller’s longtime friend and colleague Victor Sjostrom, already a gilded exile there. Sjostrom adapted fairly well and did some of his best work in America, while Garbo became a superstar. Stiller, unable to submit to the studio system, spent four unhappy years there and returned to Sweden in 1927, sick and disappointed. He died a few months later at the age of 45.