Victor Sjöström is perhaps best known as a director for the two silent features he made in America with Lillian Gish, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928); as an actor, he is surely best remembered for his deeply moving performance as the aging professor in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, made in 1957 when he was 78 years old. But the recent recovery of a strikingly well-preserved, tinted print of one of Sjöström's early works produced in his native Sweden should give his reputation a fresh boost and firmly re-establish his place as one of the great directors of the cinema's first generation, alongside D.W. Griffith, Maurice Tourneur, and Erich Von Stroheim. 'Terje Vigen,' based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen, is a remarkably sophisticated film of great beauty, a tragic tale with an ending that is unexpectedly uplifting. I can't recall any other movie I've seen that tells such a sad story and nonetheless left me feeling so exhilarated at the finale.
This project marked a personal and professional milestone for the director. A former stage actor, Sjöström made his movie debut as a performer in 1912 at a studio called Svenska Biografteatern and began directing films for the company soon afterward, but in later years he asserted that most of his early efforts were vulgar and conventional. By the summer of 1916 he was at a low-point, unhappy about his career and the recent failure of his marriage. When producer Charles Magnusson suggested he adapt Ibsen's epic poem "Terje Vigen" Sjöström was skeptical of its potential as screen material, that is, until a bicycle trip to the Grimstad coast, where the poem is set, changed his mind. For financial reasons the filming took place on the sea shore near Stockholm rather than Grimstad, but the director took full advantage of his location's rocky coast and crashing waves, making the landscape an integral part of his film. When the lead actor originally slated to play Terje Vigen dropped out Sjöström took the role himself, and thus put his personal stamp on the finished product. He gave a measured yet intense performance in the title role and appeared in practically every scene.
The story is set in the early 19th century and may remind some viewers of the tale of Enoch Arden (which had supplied the plot of one of D.W. Griffith's strongest Biograph dramas in 1911). Terje Vigen is a fisherman who quits the seafaring life to marry and start a family in Grimstad, a coastal village. But the Napoleonic wars sweep Europe, and when the British navy sets up a blockade of his island the threat of starvation becomes a grim reality. Rather than see his wife and daughter starve, Terje attempts to run the blockade and return with food. He almost succeeds, but the British spot him in his small boat, give chase, and eventually catch him. Dragged onto the deck of the British frigate he begs for mercy, but the Captain coldly ignores his pleas and has him imprisoned. Five years later Terje is released and returns to his village to find strangers living in his home: his wife and daughter died of starvation. Years pass, and Terje dreams only of vengeance. When a yacht founders off the coast he rescues the owner with his wife and child, and recognizes him as the British captain who denied him mercy years earlier. Terje has it within his power to kill all three, but the sight of the child restores his humanity. He spares them, and his desire for vengeance is conquered.
The first thing you notice about this film is that the seaside landscapes are thrilling. The cinematography is excellent throughout, but 'Terje Vigen' is more than just a series of beautiful images. Sjöström's Terje is a strong and dignified protagonist. In a role that could easily have lent itself to eye-rolling histrionics the director did not permit himself to overact, and he set the tone for the other performers: there isn't a single false moment from anyone. Sjöström's directorial technique is especially impressive during the emotional high point, Terje's frantic attempt to escape the British sailors in his boat. It's startling to find a sequence like this one in such an early feature: the director puts the viewer squarely in the midst of the action by alternately placing his camera in each of the boats. He cuts back and forth between shots of Terje's arms furiously rowing and shots of the uniformed British sailors coolly coordinating their pursuit. The camera rocks with the ocean, the tempo of the editing accelerates, and the suspense builds sharply. It's an amazing sequence, especially coming after the stately, melancholy introductory scenes on shore. The sea chase also features the only moment of humor, when Terje briefly believes that he's eluded his pursuers, and "cocks a snook" at them (i.e. puts his thumb to his nose and waggles his fingers). But his triumph is short-lived.
The story is a tragedy, but Terje's climactic change of heart is what makes this film a surprisingly uplifting experience. After reading a synopsis of the plot I confess I sat down to watch the film expecting it to be gloomy and depressing, but instead found an exciting, expertly-handled work of silent cinema that left me buzzing. Apparently 'Terje Vigen' marked Victor Sjöström's first international success, popular not only in Sweden and throughout Europe but also in the U.S., Latin America and Asia; fully ninety years after it was produced I can understand why.
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