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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive

The Films of Mauritz Stiller
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

There haven't really been a lot of new silent films released on DVD this year, which is unfortunate.  The last few years have been very good, with collections of Chaplin and Lloyd being released, as well as King of Kings, several Pickford films and a collection of early Edison movies.  I guess we've been spoiled a bit.

This time around I have early reviews of three new silent releases from Kino.  Due out on June 6th are a trio of restored films by the Swedish director Mauritz Stiller: Sir Arne's Treasure (1919), Erotikon (1920), and The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924).  The later was the film that made Greta Garbo a star, and this is the first appearance of the restored three hour version on home video in the US.

In other news, the SF Silent Film Festival will be held on July 14-16th this year, and the schedule has just been released:

Friday, July 14

Seventh Heaven (1927) - staring Janet Gaynor

Saturday, July 15

Bucking Broadway (1917) - an early John Ford Western staring Harry Carey.  Thought lost until a print was discovered in 2002.
Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930) - a French film by Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko)
Sparrows (1926) - the last 'little girl' film of Mary Pickford
Pandora's Box (1929) - the G. W. Pabst film that made Louise Brooks an international star

Sunday, July 16

Amazing Tales from the Archives -film restoration demo: 
Laurel and Hardy - three films (The Finishing Touch, Liberty, and Wrong Man)
The Girl with the Hatbox (1927) - a charming Russian comedy [review of the DVD]
The Unholy Three (1925) - a Lon Chaney film directed by Tod Browning
Show People (1928) - a King Vidor film staring Marion Davies

They've got a great line up for this year and it should be a lot of fun.  This is the biggest film festival of its type in the country and I always have a great time.  I urge every fan of early cinema to attend if at all possible.

As far as upcoming releases, on May 23rd, Image has scheduled a double feature DVD containing The Clinging Vine (1926) starring Leatrice Joy, John Gilbert's wife, and The Age of Ballyhoo a 1973 documentary narrated by Gloria Swanson.

Milestone also has some new discs on their schedule.  The Gloria Swanson/Rudolph Valentino film Beyond the Rocks will be released on DVD July 11, 2006.  This long thought lost film has been lovingly restored and comes with some great extras including a second Valentino feature (The Delicious Little Devil (1919)) and a previously unreleased Swanson recording from 1955.

Also scheduled for July 11th is Electric Edwardians:  The Lost Films of Mitchell and Kenyon.  This is a rarity that promises to be very interesting.  In the first year's of the 20th Century, Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon traveled around northern England filming people going about their everyday lives.  These films would later be shown in local town halls and fairgrounds where people would pay to see themselves and their neighbors actually on screen.  The original negatives to these films were recently discovered in a basement in Blackburn England.  Collected together here, these films offer a unique look into what life was like in pre-World War England.

Another piece of good news comes from Annette Melville of the National Film Preservation Foundation.  She's informed me that there will be a third installment of Treasures from American Film Archives!  The first two were excellent [review of set one] [review of set two] and this one should be too.  The third collection will feature early films that tackled social issues of the day such as abortion, alcoholism, and prison reform.  Like the previous sets, there will be feature films, cartoons, shorts, serials and newsreels.  The bad new is that this boxed set isn't due to be released until the fall of 2007.  In any case, it should be a great set, and I'll keep you posted as I get more information.

Three Films by Mauritz Stiller

Europe had a booming film industry both before and after WWI.  Germany was the film powerhouse of course, creating some of the most important and cherished silent films including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Nosferatu(1922), and Metropolis (1927) among many others.  Italy also had a robust film industry that filmed many historic epics such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1913).  Swedish cinema in the silent era though, has nearly been forgotten.  This is unfortunate since the Swedish were putting out quality films at this time that had a large impact on world cinema and influenced many directors including Ingmar Bergman and Ernst Lubitsch.

In an attempt to remedy this, Kino has released a trio of silent films by one Sweden's most talented directors, Mauritz Stiller.  The movies, Sir Arne's Treasure (1919), Erotikon (1920), and his most famous work, The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924), (MSRP $29.95 each, sold separately) have all been restored by the Svensk Filmindustri and through these viewers are able to experience for themselves some of the sophistication and style of early Swedish film.

A brief history of early film in Sweden:

The roots of the Swedish film industry go back to 1909, when a man named Charles Magnusson became the director of the film company Svenska Biografteatern AB (later to become Svensk Filmindustri.)  In addition to moving the company to Stockholm, Magnusson was responsible for hiring some very talented directors and letting them make films without much interference.  The first person he hired was the actor/director Victor Sjöström, often known as the father of Swedish cinema.  In 1912, on Sjöström's recommendation, he also hired Mauritz Stiller to direct films.

Stiller was a Russian Jew who was born and lived in Finland. When he was called to join the Czar's army in the early 20th century, Stiller decided to flee to Sweden instead.  There he put on theater shows until he came to the attention of Sjöström, who would be a life long friend, and Charles Magnusson.  A tireless worker, between 1913 and 1916 Stiller directed over 30 feature films.

During WWI, Sweden was neutral, and because of that they were able to distribute their films to both sides of the conflict.  Both France and Germany purchased their movies, and these films would later influence a number of German directors who were cut off from product from America.  Financially successful and with talented and experienced directors, the years 1917 through 1924 saw Swedish cinema really blossoming.  Sjöström and Stiller were at the top of their form, and made several entertaining films noted for their beautiful exterior scenes, high production values, and rich crisp images (the later thanks to cinematographer Julius Jaenzon.)  Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage is often cited as the best film from this period.

Greta Garbo and Mauritz Stiller sailing for America in 1925.

This first golden age of Swedish film was short lived however.  In the early 1920's, Sjöström was hired by Goldwyn Studios in the US, and in 1924 Louis B. Mayer hired Mauritz Stiller for $1000/week.  Stiller insisted that his new protégé also get a contract, so Mayer signed Greta Garbo too, for much less money.  (A great move on Mayer's part.)  Other stars, notably actor Lars Hanson, would soon emigrate to Hollywood too.  Swedish cinema never really recovered from this exodus of creative talent and practically evaporates until after the coming of sound in 1930.

The Films

Sir Arne's Treasure (1919):

This is a beautiful film that really makes excellent use of the Swedish winters.  In 16th-century Sweden, a group of Scottish mercenaries plan to overthrow the king.  Their plan is discovered however, the troops are exiled from the country, and their three leaders are thrown into prison.  Being the resourceful soldiers that they are, the three officers soon escape and flee into the harsh wilderness.

Sometime later, cold, starving, and near death, the wanted men breaks into a farm house where they gorge themselves on mutton and wine.  Feeling refreshed, the trio steals some knives and sets upon the local vicarage where Sir Arne lives.  They kill everyone in the house, take Sir Arne's chest of silver coins, and set the building on fire.  The only person who escapes the slaughter is young Elsalill who manages to hide in a wall and sees the killing of her family.

Elsalill goes to live with friends near the sea shore where the hundreds of exiled mercenaries wait for the ice to thaw so they may go home.  One day three richly dressed Scotsmen including one named Sir Archi pass by her house and stop to talk.  It isn't long before Sir Archi has fallen in love with the beautiful Elsalill and asks her to marry him.  Elsalill's has been having dreams however, dreams where her dead sister is trying to communicate the identities of the killers, and they may be closer than the young girl thinks.

This is an engaging and interesting film that really showcases Stiller's talents.  One of the most fascinating aspects of the movie is the way he uses the Swedish winter almost like a character in the film, a force that was both cruel and just.   The escapees are battered and beaten by the forceful cold at the beginning, and even later when they are trying to obtain passage back to Scotland the ships stay icebound in the bay.  The desolate scenes of fields of snow and trapped vessels make the cold come alive in addition to being beautiful.

The double exposures that are used to portray dreams and prophecies are also very effective and well done.  In one scene Sir Arne's sickly wife sees the convicts sharpening their knives with her mind's eye, and wonders what they are doing that for.  It's eerie and works well to raise the tension of the movie.  The way the murder is revealed also illustrates Stiller's skill.  Instead of showing the slaughter, which may be censored in some markets, the vicarage is shown after the crime has taken place.  This doesn't diminish the strength of the scene though.  Seeing the aftermath and Elsalill clutching her dead younger sister accurately portrays the horrors of the that took place.

Stiller also used foreshadowing very effectively throughout the film.  I usually don't like the technique, but in this case it added a certain degree of excitement to the film.  Knowing that the mercenaries are going to attack the vicarage, the narrative changes to a banquet at a nearby inn.  This successfully raises the tension of the scene, which would otherwise be ordinary.

The only real problem I had with this film was the newly created soundtrack.  The music was scene specific, ending when an act finished and changing tempo with new scenes, but the feeling of the music didn't mesh well with the tone of the film.  A good example of this was the melancholy music playing during the escape scene at the beginning.  This was an exciting part of the film, and the music should have accented the prisoner's plight.  Instead it made the scene feel a bit sad, which wasn't the emotion that the director was going for.  There were a few sound effects added which did work well though.

Erotikon (1920):

This was one of the most expensive silent movies to come out of Sweden.  With over 800 extras,  aerial shots, lavish sets and a staged opera within the film, this drawing room comedy was surely impressive when it was first released.

The story involves Irene, the wife of an entomology professor.  Though the pair are very well-to-do, Irene isn't satisfied living a life of luxury with her husband.  She wants some excitement.  She finds it flying airplanes with a womanizing pilot, and also with Preben (Lars Hanson), a sculptor and her husband's best friend.  The problem is, she can't decide which man she wants.

Out of these three Stiller films, this one appealed to me the least.  It was obviously ahead of its time, dealing frankly with divorce and bigamy as well as a woman's sexuality, but it never really clicked with me.  From the beginning I found Irene to be a loathsome character.  At the outset viewers see her wasting a clerk's time by spending an hour looking at furs that she knows she wouldn't buy in order to "teach the furrier patience."  She flirts and leads men on frequently, and they seem to be attracted to her though I could never understand what the appeal was.

Though this is billed as a comedy, few modern audiences would classify it as such.  The film does make a point to mock polite society, but it's more sardonic than really funny.  That's not to say that there aren't humorous segments, the section at the end where the professor is afraid that Irene might come back was amusing, but drama generally overshadows the light moments.

Like many of Stiller's films, the direction is good and this film contained some very well done scenes.  The aerial photography when Irene goes flying is surprising and well films, not to mention fun to watch.  The opera scene was also impressive, a fully staged spectacle that told an Arabian Nights type of tale.

Once again, the soundtrack to this film, composed and performed by Bruce Bennett and Paul Mercer on violin and piano didn't suit the mood of the film for the most part.  The tempo was much too slow especially for a comic film.  While the music was scene specific it didn't seem to accent the action that was taking place.  The one exception was the opera scene in which the middle eastern sounding songs did work well with the events on stage.

The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924):

This film was the last big release of the Swedish film industry during the silent era and also launched Greta Garbo's career.  It is unfortunate to note that this important movie has only been available in the US in an edited version that chops off an hour's worth of footage.  This Kino release contains an older restoration (from 1975) that recreates, as best as possible, the original film.  Running at just a tad over three hours, it does a good job.

Based on the first novel by Selma Lagerlöf, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1909 and also wrote the novel that Sir Arne's Treasure was based on, this sprawling tale tells the story of Gosta Berling (Lars Hanson) a defrocked priest.  After losing his congregation, he takes a job tutoring a rich young girl, Ebba Dohna (Mona Mårtenson.)  It's a job he is able to land because the girl's step-mother hopes that Ebba will fall in love and marry Gosta, and if she does that she'll lose her inheritance and the estate will pass to the step-mother's son, Henrik (Torsten Hammarén) and his new Italian wife Elisabeth (Greta Garbo).

Leaving Ebba before she can lose her inheritance, Gosta ends up at the estate of matron Margaretha Samzelius (Gerda Lundequist); Ekeby.  Here he becomes one of the 'Knights of Ekeby', a group of a dozen men who live on the estate for reasons that weren't ever made clear.  Gosta makes friends and a few enemies and gets entangled in a surprising number of romantic predicaments as the film progresses.

This movie was a mixed bag.  It was very well made, was filled with interesting characters, and had some wonderful sections.  On the other hand it was confusing, (several stories were told in flashbacks), plodding in parts, and overly melodramatic.  The film is a bit too ambitious for it's own good, trying (presumably) to incorporate all of the subplots and characters that filled the original novel (which was a run away best seller at the time.)  If they had pared the novel down some, the movie would have been much more enjoyable.

Like Stiller's other films, this one has several impressive exterior shots and some scenes filmed at night that work very well.  Each scene, taken by itself, was beautiful and well crafted.  From the devil coming out of the fireplace at the beginning to the sled chase across the snow it was easy to get caught up in the movie.  The film's failing is that there are too many story lines and it is hard to care about all of them, especially when a few don't seem to have anything to do with the main plot.

The acting, while occasionally being a bit over the top, was generally excellent.  Garbo, who has only a supporting role despite her prominence on the DVD cover, is a standout and it's easy to see how she turned this performance into the start of a career.  Lars Hanson also does an excellent job in the lead role even through the thick pancake make-up that he wears.

The orchestral score for this film, composed and conducted by Matti Bye, wasn't the greatest.  Though it wasn't as off as the other two films, they tried a few things that just didn't work.  For example, in the scene where Gosta is yelling at his congregation they play a single screeching violin string to mimic a shrill voice.  This unpleasant noise just detracts from the movie instead of accenting it.

Stiller in America:

Unfortunately, Mauritz Stiller did not do well in Hollywood.  As happened with more than one European director, Stiller did not thrive in the studio system.  He was moody and quarrelsome and this caused him a lot of problems.  He frequently fought with studio heads and was pulled off Garbo's second American film, The Temptress.  In 1928 he gave up on Hollywood and went back to Sweden.  He died within months of returning home of Pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of the lungs.  He was 45.

The DVD:


Thought none of the accompaniments were favorites, the stereo tracks were reproduced well.  There was a good amount of range and the instruments were clean and clear.  Audio defects, such as dropouts and distortion, were not present.


All three of these films have been restored, are tinted, and look very good for 80 year old movies.  There are still some print defects to be found in the image, occasional flecks and spots and the rare torn frame, but these are never distracting.   While the contrast is good, it's not outstanding and sometimes black coats tend to blend in with dark backgrounds.  While Gosta a little soft, the other two are fine.  Overall a very nice looking set of movies.


Each disc has the same featurette, Rediscovering Sweden.  This is a short introduction to the films of Mauritz Stiller by film historian Peter Cowie.   In addition, Cowie provides an introduction to each individual film too.

That's all to be found on Sir Arne's Treasure and Erotikon, but The Saga of Gosta Berling has several more bonus items.  There is an excerpt from an early Garbo film, Luffarpeter, early advertising films that Garbo did, and newsreel footage of Garbo leaving Sweden. An very nice package.

Final Thoughts:

These films were mixed.  Though they all were well done and had large budgets, some were more appealing than others.  Sir Arne's Treasure was a good film and one that's well worth seeing, and the same can be said of The Saga of Gosta Berling though there are many parts where it drags.  These are recommended for silent movie fans, especially the former.  Erotikon just never struck the right notes with me however.  The comedy wasn't very funny, and the characters weren't engaging.  Viewers who enjoyed the other two Stiller films should probably rent this one.

Comments?  Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.


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