Victor Sjöström, the movie director, screenwriter and actor, is considered to be the father of Swedish cinema. As a director, he is indisputably ranked as one of the masters of movie-making during the silent period. His influence lives on in the work of his fellow master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, whom he mentored, and all those other directors, both Swedish and international, influenced by his work.
Sjöström was born on September 20, 1879 in Silbodal, Sweden, the son of Sofia Elisabeth Hartman (1844-1886), who had acted in regional theater and whose brother, was one of the principal actors with the Royal Dramatic Theatre. Victor’s father, Olof Adolf Sjöström (1841-1896), was a businessman who emigrated to America in 1880, settling in Brooklyn, New York, where he soon was joined by his family.
Young Victor Sjöström was close to his mother Sofia, but when he was seven years old, she died of puerperal after giving birth. His father Olof, who had his own shipping business, subsequently married the family nanny. The young Victor’s conflict with his stepmother and his dismay over his father’s religious views influenced the decision for the teenager to return to Sweden in 1893. He went to live with his aunt, who lived in Uppsala, 70 kilometers north of Stockholm.
Victor became interested in the theater, and became a director in a young persons dramatic club. On school breaks, he would go to Stockholm to visit his maternal uncle, Victor Hartman, the actor. In 1896, his father Olof returned to Sweden, settling in Stockholm, where he was reunited with Victor, who moved in with his father.
Olof Sjöström was destitute, and Victor had to quit school to sell doughnuts on the streets of Stockkolm to help support the family. Olof died in 1896.
His father’s death freed him from his family responsibilities, and Victor decided to become a professional actor. However, he lacked the money to attend acting school at the Royal Dramatic Theater, so he joined a touring company.
Victor Sjöström’s apprenticeship matured into a life as a traveling player. In addition to acting, he also directed plays while touring Sweden and Finland. His reputation as a stage director grew and attracted the attention of the movie producer Charles Magnusson, who offered Sjöström a job directing with his production company, Svenska Bio, in early 1912.
Sjöström’s life in regional theater was not over, merely suspended for four decades. A new career, which would earn him the sobriquet The Father of Swedish Cinema, was about to begin.
Father of Swedish Cinema
Svenska Bio was the only Swedish motion picture production company of note when Victor Sjöström was hired to direct. He joined a company that included fellow stage director Mauritz Stiller, who also had been hired to helm pictures and would also establish a reputation as a major director of silent films in Sweden and in Hollywood. (Stiller will always have a place in world cinema history as the man who discovered the actress Greta Gustafsson, whom he renamed Greta Garbo.)
Mauritz Stiller was already experienced as a movie director, so Sjöström acted in one of his films to learn the trade. (Victor Sjöström acted in many of the films he directed, as well as had a hand in writing their scenarios.) Trädgårdsmästaren(The Gardener), which was written by Stiller, was his first film as a director, and he also played the lead role opposite his second wife, Lili Bech.
From 1912 and 1917, he directed 31 films. Only three of them have survived. Sjöström managed to develop a personal style despite the exigencies of working in an industrial art form. Most of Svenska Bio films of this period are considered embarrassments in aesthetic terms, its output chock-a-block with the absurd melodramas, ridiculous romances and stupid comedies that characterized the output of all nations’ film industries from the very first days when a camera handle was cranked to produce “movies.”
Only three of these 31 movies still survive. It is estimated that approximately 80% of the total silent era production, has been lost, and there is no reason to think that the tyro director didn’t helm his share of mediocre films. However, he managed to distinguish himself with his best pictures and garner international attention and acclaim.
Sjöström established his reputation as a director with the social realist film Ingeborg Holm (1913), for which he also wrote the scenario. Sjöström adapted Nils Krok’s 1906 play about a widow denied assistance by the poorhouse. Called “the first realistic feature film” in Sweden, the movie had a huge social impact, helping spark a debate that led to a reform of Swedish social security laws.
Ingeborg Holm was very long for its time at 96 minutes. (By comparison, the1913 Western The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, directed by America’s foremost director D.W. Griffith, clocked in at 29 minutes). It is considered the first classic of Swedish cinema.
Ingmar Bergman, who was vastly influenced by the films of Victor Sjöström, first saw the film in 1933 and ran it annually in his home cinema. His pronouncement: “It’s one of the most remarkable films ever made.”
Bergman believed that Victor Sjöström’s films aged much better than did those of Mauritz Stiller. “Ingeborg Holm is still true and gripping; remarkably modern,” he wrote in Bergman on Bergman.
The Golden Age of Swedish cinema began in 1916. Two of the films that helped mark the beginning of this period were directed by Victor Sjöström, who also starred in both and had a hand in writing their screenplays. The 1916 film Terje Vigen(A Man There Was), was an epic film about a fisherman who defies the British naval blockade during the Napoleonic Wars, Released in Sweden and Denmark in 1917 and the United States in 1920, it generally considered the film that kicks off the Golden Age.
The epic was the most expensive film ever made in Sweden to that time. Based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen, Sjöström played the lead role as the heroic fisherman.
He directed and wrote the 1918 masterpiece Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw & His Wife, released as You & I in the U.S.), was another epic. Sjöström played the starring role, an Icelandic outlaw, opposite Edith Erastroff, who starred as the widow the outlaw falls in love with. The two were lovers in real life who would eventually marry.
One film historian praised this film for its “depictions of nature, the interplay between man and nature, its lighting, photography and the sensitivity and sincerity of their character portrayals.”
Silent film had an international market, as there was no language barrier. (Title cards could be easily translated.)
Victor Sjöström’s films became internationally renowned. His films were full of psychological subtleties and natural symbolism that was seamlessly integrated into his films. He dealt with such major themes as guilt, redemption, and the rapidly evolving place of women in society.
Wooed by Hollywood
Svenska Bio and Filmindustri AB Skandia merged in 1919, creating Svensk Filmindustri. The new company built a production complex outside of Stockholm at Råsunda, and the film that would inaugurate the new facility was directed by Victor Sjöström in 1920. (Four years later, he would turn the same trick, christening a new studio with its first film production, in America.) Released in 1921, Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, a.k.a. Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness) was an internationally acclaimed masterpiece.
The film has such a phenomenal impact, that Ingmar Bergman actually wrote a play Bildmakarna, about the public reception of The Phantom Carriage, which he watched annually at his private cinema.
“My relationship with The Phantom Carriage is very special,” Berman wrote. “I was fifteen years old when I saw it for the first time…. I remember it as one of the major emotional and artistic experiences of my life.”
In 1923, American producer Sam Goldwyn hired him to direct Name the Man, which brought the Swede to Goldwyn’s studio in Culver City, California. The film starred Mae Busch (the star of Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives) and Conrad Nagel and sported a screenplay by Paul Bern (who later was irving Thalberg’s lieutenant at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).
For the film’s January 1924 release, Sjöström’s name was changed to “Seastrom” (a phonetic pronunciation in a country with limited word fonts) for the credit sequence. He soon would be hailed as a major American director with his next film, positioning himself a proto-David Lean renowned for balancing artistic expression with a concern for what would play at the box office.
Sam Goldwyn’s production company, Goldwyn Pictures, was bought by the exhibitor Marcus Loew’s and amalgamated with Metro Pictures and then Louis B. Mayer’s production company, creating the studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. It was at this studio that Sjöström he worked until shortly after the advent of sound.
The first M-G-M film to be put into production was the Lon Chaney melodrama He Who Gets Slapped, directed by “Victor Seastrom,” who also had a hand at adapting the novel by the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev’s novel, on which the 1922 Broadway play had been based. A masterful motion picture with a terrific performance by the fabled “Man of a Thousand Faces,” He Who Gets Slapped proved was released in November 1924, to cash in on the holiday season.
New York Times movie critic Mordaunt Hall, in his November 10, 1924 review, called He Who Gets Slapped, “a celluloid masterpiece.”
The first M-G-M feature to sport Leo the Lion (which was the Goldwyn Pictures mascot), the movie was both a critical success and a huge box office hit, getting the new studio off onto a sound footing. M-G-M was under severe financial pressures due to the production of the mega-epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which cost a then-phenomenal $4 million, and would not be released until 1925. The success of He Who Gets Slapped was welcomed by studio head Louis B. Mayer.
Sjöström was highly respected by not just studio boss Mayer but by production head Irving Thalberg, who shared the director’s artistic aspirations, as long as an artistic film did not exclude the idea of proving popular and turning a profit. Thalberg had clashed memorably with the spend-thirft Erich on Stroheim, first at Universal and then at M-G-M. Von Stroheim’s meticulous attention to detail, slow shooting and lavish spending meant that his films typically went wildly over-budget and could not possibly make back their money, let alone a profit, but in fact racked up huge losses.
Irving Thalberg, who was immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon, was unique in that he believed that a studio benefited from the prestige of an artistic success that might lose money at the box office. He was an ideal production supervisor for Sjöström.
The Coming of Sound
Victor Sjöström, a master of the plastic medium that was the motion picture when silence held sway, became one of the most highly paid directors in Hollywood. His reputation reached its peak at the end of the silent era, when the silent film reached its maturation as an art form.
Some of Sjöström’s biographers believe that his truncated relationship with mother led to his development and usage of the dramatic trope of strong-willed, independent women evident in his films. He was masterful at eliciting sensitive performances from actresses, such as that of Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), the latter of which is considered his American masterpiece.
He departed Hollywood for Sweden after A Lady to Love (1930), a talkie featuring Edward G. Robinson’s and Sam Goldwyn’s silent superstar Vilma Bánky, who had been half of a popular romantic team with Ronald Colman. Unlike Leo the Lion, whom he bequeathed to M-G-M, Bánky had stuck with Sam, who was trying to reposition her in sound films, despite her Hungarian accent.
Based on a play by Sidney Howard (a popular playwright who had received a Pulitzer Prize in 1925), A Lady to Love was Bánky’s first all-taking film (she had previously appeared in a partial talkie, featuring some sound sequences). The English-language movie version was made simultaneously with a German-language version for export.
For Victor Sjöström and Vilma Bánky, A Lady to Love was the last film they made in Hollywood. Bánky appeared in only one more movie in her career, German film The Rebel in 1933. Sjöström also went to Germany in 1930, directing Väter und Söhne. Returning to his native Sweden, he directed and starred in Markurells i Wadköping .
Sjöström would direct only one more movie, helming Under the Red Robe (1937) for 20th Century-Fox’s New World subsidiary.
Under the Red Robe was made in England as a “quota quickie,” locally produced product that enabled British movie distributors to continue import Hollywood-produced fare into the UK. A “swashbuckler,” Under the Red Robe lacks both swordplay and bona fide stars.
Despite its intent to give employment to British actors and film technicians, it features a Canadian (Raymond Massey), a German (Conrad Veidt), a Frenchwoman (Annabella) in its lead roles and a Mexican (Romney Brent) in a major supporting role. It was shot by two, non-British cameramen, the American James Wong Howe and the Frenchman George Perinal. However, this was typical of British cinema of that era, the personnel of which were international in character, just like Hollywood.
According to the Web site It’s Not Just Michael Powell: British Films of the 30s, 40s and 50s, “The main problem with Under the Red Robe is that it is a swashbuckler without a single sword fight. Veidt’s meant to be playing the best swordsman in France, but we never see any of it. Instead we get a meditation of the redemptive power of love. This is Sjöström’s territory, but the lack of a proper bit of action makes the film feel off-balance. With all the talent involved, Under the Red Robe should have been better; but it’s no disgrace to anyone.”
It’s a strange end to the career of such a fabled director. He would become involved in the production of motion pictures again, but would never again direct. Essentially, Victor Sjöström’s career as a director effectively ended with the sound era, out of choice (not due to becoming a pariah, like Erich von Stroheim).
Grand Old Man of Swedish Cinema
Ingmar Bergman said that that hallmark of his films was, “His incorruptible demand for truth, his incorruptible observation of reality. His way of never for a moment making things easy for himself, or simplifying or skipping things or cheating or succumbing to mere brilliance.”
Victor Sjöström returned to his first avocation, acting: He devoted himself nearly exclusively to the stage from 1939 to 1943, though he continued to act in Swedish films in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. In 1942, he was brought back to Svensk Filmindustri to serve as the studio’s artistic director, a position analogous to that enjoyed by Irving Thalberg when Sjöström was at M-G-M.
As artistic director, he generally focused on screenwriting and, to a lesser extent, the editing of the pictures
“If you’ve got a good screenplay you can assume that any film is 75 per cent home and dry,” he said.
In this position, Sjöström was a mentor to Ingmar Bergman, who came from Uppsala, where the great director had lived with his aunt after returning from the United States. He oversaw Bergman’s writing of his first screenplay for the 1944 film Hets (Torment), and supported Bergman when he directed his first picture, Kris (Crisis) two years later.
Victor Sjöström quit Svensk Filmindustri in 1949. He continued to act sporadically in films, including an appearance in Bergman’s 1950 film Till glädje (Ode to Joy). He went back to his roots as a traveling player, appearing in regional theater, most notably as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He gave a remarkable performance in Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries).
The two clashed over the interpretation of the character, Sjöström resisting some of Bergman’s ideas. The results of the collaboration between the young director and the older actor who had been his mentor were brilliant.
Bergman said that, “[H]e was amazing to work with…as long as he was home by quarter past five sharp in time for his daily whisky.”
The role brought Victor Sjöström the National Board of Review’s Best Actor Award. It was his last role, as his health began to deteriorate soon after the film’s premiere.
Victor Sjöström married Alexandra Stjagoff in 1900 and they were divorced in 1912. A year later, he married actress Lili Bech, but that marriage ended in divorce in 1916.
Sjöström fell in love with the married actress Edith Erastoff and she became pregnant while they were filming The Outlaw & His Wife. They had two daughters: Guje, who was born on January 13, 1918, and Caje, born August 31, 1918. Both were born illegitimate, as the couple did not get married until 1922, as she had to wait five years to obtain her own divorce.
In his professional life, he was a workaholic, and in his private life, Sjöström was reticent about his films and his fame. He was intensely devoted to his wife Edith Erastoff and his family. Edith died in 1945.
Victor Sjöström died from the effects of a blood clot on January 3, 1960, in Stockholm, Sweden. He was 80 years old.
Note: A version of this biography originally appeared on the Internet Movie Database
Ingmar Bergman Foundation, Ingmar Bergman Face to Face: Victor Sjöström