Tag Archives: Victor Sjöström





FEATURING: , , Ingrid Thulin

PLOT: An aging professor has dreams of death and flashbacks to his youth as he drives to a university to accept an honorary degree.

Still from Wild Strawberries (1957)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. Only the presence of a couple of dream sequences, and the fact that the story emerges from the mind of semi-surrealist auteur Ingmar Bergman, make this character study worthy of a footnote in weird movie history.

COMMENTS: Incredibly, Ingmar Bergman released Wild Strawberries in the same year as The Seventh Seal, and although the overriding theme of both films is death, the approach taken in this quiet character study could hardly be different than the bombast of Seal‘s epic medieval fantasy. Wild Strawberries is an intimate, internalized movie about an ordinary man coping with regret at the end of his life, and, without a couple of dream sequences that Freud-obsessed Bergman couldn’t resist adding, it would belong to a tradition of quotidian dramatic cinema that stands directly opposed to the world of weird film. Many people deeply identify with Professor Isak’s pre-mortem ruminations, but I confess I’m not one of them. This is the kind of realism-based movie that conjures no magic for me, although I can appreciate the craftsmanship and understand why others with different predispositions rate it so highly. The dreams depicted here err towards psychological realism rather than mystery. The initial nightmare comes in quickly, taking pride of place directly after the credits. Featuring a withered man with a squashed face and a hearse accident, it’s obviously Isak’s death-anxiety dream, an easy slam dunk interpretation for any amateur psychotherapist. The second trip into Isak’s psyche takes place after we’ve been exposed to some flashbacks to his youth, and digs a bit deeper, although the symbolism is still fairly simple to grasp. It’s actually a series of dreams, beginning with another flashback to his youthful love. That turns into a common examination dream; Isak has shown up for a test, but he’s not prepared. He looks into a microscope and can’t see anything, he sees only nonsense words scrawled on the chalkboard. (At least he remembered to wear pants). After failing the exam, the experience morphs into a guilt dream; the test is revealed as a trial. The sequence ends on another memory, this time of his wife, and a tryst that may or may not have occurred as depicted but which nevertheless reveals his ambivalence about the woman who fathered his son. There is a conundrum in Wild Strawberries; Isak seeks forgiveness, but he seems rather a good egg than a terrible sinner. We are repeatedly told Isak is cold and unfeeling, but the warmth that emanates from behind Sjöström’s sad and crinkly eyes contradicts that narrative. When his daughter-in-law tells him he’s a selfish old man who only thinks of himself, we are immediately on his side; we know that he’s been misunderstood. Bergman surely could direct cold and unfeeling—see the performances of Jullan Kindahl as the buttoned-up housekeeper and Naima Wifstrand as Isak’s harridan mother—so perhaps the idea behind our instant fondness for Victor Sjöström’s grandfatherly professor is that we, the audience, see the doctor as he sees himself, not as others see him. The movie seeks to redeem a character with whom we begin in sympathy; a strange emotional arc, but one that works for many people. Ultimately, although Wild Strawberries is doubtlessly an excellent movie, I do find it a tiny bit overrated—but perhaps that’s only because it’s being compared to the author’s other masterpieces, like The Seventh Seal and Persona. This is a different species of film, a ruminative and elegiac movie that is focused narrowly on a perfectly realized individual rather than grand existential allegories. One of Bergman’s gifts is that he was comfortable working either on an epic stage or in a small chamber. He could bring a sense of warmth to the one and an echo of universality to the other. Wild Strawberries is clearly on the realistic chamber drama end of his range, and the “recommended” rating here is for general cinema enthusiasts, not lovers of the weird.

The Criterion Collection’s Wild Strawberries DVD includes a commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie and a ninety-minute Bergman documentary/interview, Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work. The 2013 Blu-ray upgrade (buy) adds a short introduction from the director and new behind-the-scenes footage.


“…so thoroughly mystifying that we wonder whether Mr. Bergman himself knew what he was trying to say. As nearly as we can make out… the purpose of Mr. Bergman in this virtually surrealist exercise is to get at a comprehension of the feelings and the psychology of an aging man.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)


Although it has been predictably labeled a “horror” film by more than a few dull and lazy commentators, ‘s The Phantom Carriage owes more to Charles Dickens and the literary world of supernatural dreams than it does contemporary, cheapened genre categories.  In October of this year, The Phantom Carriage received its long overdue Criterion release.  A telling clue to the film’s artistic merits can be heard in the academic commentary by historian Casper Tybjerg.  Another valuable and revealing extra in this Criterion edition is an excerpt from a filmed interview with in which the director discusses the influence that Sjostrom and The Phantom Carriage had on his own art. A video essay by historian Peter Cowie, and an accompanying written essay by Paul Mayersberg (screenwriter of The Man Who Fell To Earth) round out a typically impressive Criterion release.

According to the Scandinavian myth, the last person to die on New Years Eve is doomed to be the dreaded coachman for the grim reaper’s chariot until the following New Years Eve.  The director himself plays protagonist David Holm, and Sjostrom’s acting is strikingly contemporary in its naturalness, quite the reverse of what we think of in regards to histrionic, stylized silent film acting.  Holm, an alcoholic, is killed on New Years Eve and, at the stroke of midnight, it is he who is drafted to be Death’s charioteer.  An old acquaintance of Holm’s happened to have been death’s previous coachman and, like Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol,” he warns Holm of a spiritually bankrupt state.  Indeed, Holm’s life has been one of decay and shocking cruelty, but Sjostrom does not resort to oversimplification.  Although Holm has become a sadistic caricature, moments of human warmth still surface, ebbing towards regret and eventual redemption.  Compared to Holm, Ebeneezer Scrooge is the stuff of sainthood.

Still from The Phantom Carriage (1921)Comparisons to Dickens are apt, but Sjostrom’s film casts an even more complex and lugubrious milieu.  The movie is based on Selma Lagerlof’s novel “Korlarlen” and, in contrast to the expressionism popular during the period, Sjostrom opts for a naturalistic setting.  While The Phantom Carriage does not take the easy route of escapist fantasy for adolescent boys, that does not mean it is lacking in intensity.  One scene clearly seeded ‘s idea for Jack Torrance in the unsettling “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining (1980) .

The cinematography, by Julius Jaenzon, is exquisitely haunting.  Jaenzon’s use of double exposure in the ghostly carriage holds up impressively for a 90 year old film.  The Phantom Carriage was released the same year as Charlie Chaplin‘s groundbreaking The Kid.  Both films are, rightly, considered spiritually progressive, humanist films of the silent era.  However, Sjostrom’s film does not fall into the maudlin sentiment that occasionally mars Chaplin’s premiere feature.

Along with Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, The Phantom Carriage is one of the most important releases of the year.  Sjostrom’s influential classic is also among the most long-awaited Criterion releases of early cinema.


He Who Gets Slapped (1924) is part of the 2011 Warner Archive Lon Chaney collection, and in this film Chaney gives one of his most natural, assured performances—in no small part due to director ,  who also directed Chaney, with Norma Shearer, in the following year’s Tower Of  Lies (unfortunately, yet another lost film).  Victor Sjostrom is something of an icon.  He was a favorite director of stars Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish, and his masterpiece, The Phantom Carriage (1921), was a considerable influence on .  After the coming of sound Sjostrom retired from directing to return to his first love of acting, but he still served as mentor to the young Bergman; Bergman repaid the favor by casting Sjostrom in the extraordinarily beautiful role of Dr. Isak Borg  for Wild Strawberries (1957, possibly Bergman’s greatest film).

After seeing the films Sjostrom had made in Sweden, Producer Irving Thalberg  recruited Sjostrom to Hollywood.  He Who Gets Slapped was the first film the director made at MGM, and it proved to be a lucrative endeavor for all concerned.  Sjostrom was one of the few directors respected by both Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg.  He Who Gets Slapped is based off the 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev.  The resulting film looks, thinks and acts far more European than anything Hollywood studios had produced at that time.

It is a tale of degradation, humiliation, pathos, and sacrifice.  Thankfully, it is a film in which we do not find ourselves rooting for the Donald Trumps or Paris Hiltons of the world.  Chaney is the destitute but prolific scientist Paul Beaumont, so dedicated in his work that he, inevitably, is rendered the oblivious fool.  Beaumont’s filthy rich patron is the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott).  Regnard has been helping himself to Beaumont’s selfish wife Maria (Ruth King) and additionally plans to steal the fruit of Beaumont’s scientific labors.

Still from He Who Gets Slapped (1924)The world of Paul Beaumont comes crashing down when Regnard presents Beaumont’s work, as his own, to the Academy.  Beaumont tries, in vain, to convince the Academy of the theft, but they take the side of the affluent Regnard as opposed to the unknown, poverty stricken Beaumont.  Beaumont is belittled  by his patron’s betrayal, by the mocking laughter of the academy, by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, and, finally, by Regnard’s humiliating slap to his face.  It is a slap which Beaumont now obsessively echoes in repetition every night.  On the Continue reading VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY