Saturday, September 22, 2007

Victor Sjostrom: The Wind

Along with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, Victor Sjostrom's 1924 film The Wind is considered to be the last great films of the silent era. I haven't seen Sunrise yet but got a chance to see The Wind yesterday at the moma.

Sjostrom (also transliterated as Seastrom) was a Swedish filmmaker who worked in Hollywood for a few years in the twenties. (He is more familiar perhaps for playing the old man in Bergman's Wild Strawberries.) With its portrayal of extreme emotional states with extreme landscapes and settings in the background, it does feel like a work of someone with a Scandinavian sensibility. Only this time it is not the winter, it is the exact opposite - it is windy, sandy, stormy desert. Lillian Gish plays Letty who in the beginning of the film travels to the west to live with her cousin. She is very feminine and very fragile - both emotionally and physically and "the dominion of the winds" soon starts to take a toll on her psyche. She is forced to choose one of the brutish suitors for marriage and settle for a life of domesticity in that harsh environment. Things go from bad to worse but the film has a very unexpected happy ending. I was not surprised to read that in the original version the Gish character goes insane in the end and walks off into the desert in the night. Obviously it was too much for the audiences to take. Even with the tacked-on ending the film successfully conveys the basic feelings of what it means for sensitive souls to live in harsh environments.

The real star of the film is of course The Wind itself. It is an awe-inspiring, at times uncomfortably so, sensory experience. At the end I felt like dusting off my shirt and my hair too - such was the effect of the sand and wind. Of course it all works only because the force and the brutality of the wind is contrasted with the sensitivity and fragility of the girl, vividly portrayed by Lillian Gish. She is present in every single frame of the film and even the wind is actually shown from her perspective, which actually makes it more believable (I don't think there is any place in America quite like that). It was great to see her back to back in The Night of the Hunter too. She has an absolutely fantastic screen presence and it doesn't matter whether the character she plays is vulnerable or strong. The character played by her in The Night is actually in complete contrast. The moment she comes in the frame you know everything will be alright. She says lines like, "I am force for the good in the world, and I know it" or "I am tree with many branches." I have actually not seen any of her works with D.W. Griffith (I know, a major gap in film history) but will definitely check them soon. Too many things to do... More details about the film on senses of cinema.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.
Please search for the film of Victor Sjostrom on my Swedish Silent film search engine.

silent film

Victor Sjostrom

Space Bar said...

see...this is what i mean: i read about these films and you guys get to watch them.

Alok said...

scott: lots of stuff to read there, thanks!

space: :) the film is quite good. hope you get a chance to see it sometime.