MAN THERE WAS, A (Victor Sjöström, 1917, Sweden, 48m, BW)
Directed by Victor Sjöström
Produced by Charles Magnusson
Based on Terje Vigen
by Henrik Ibsen
Starring Victor Sjöström
Cinematography Julius Jaenzon
29 January 1917
Language Silent film
A Man There Was (Swedish: Terje Vigen) is a 1917 Swedish drama directed by Victor Sjöström, based on a poem of the same title by Henrik Ibsen. With a budget of SEK 60,000, it was the most expensive Swedish film made up to that point, marking a new direction in Swedish cinema with more funding to fewer films, resulting in more total quality. This film is considered to be the start of the golden age of Swedish silent film that would end after Gösta Berlings saga in 1925, although films such as Ingeborg Holm (1913) are often assigned to this era as well.
Victor Sjöström as Terje Vigen
Edith Erastoff as The Lady
August Falck as The Lord
Bergliot Husberg as Mrs. Vigen
Terje Vigen lives happily with his wife and little girl on a small island in Norway. In 1809, because of the English blockade, poor people start starving and he decides to row to Denmark to bring food to his family. On the way back, he is captured by a ruthless English captain and sent to jail in England. When he was finally freed in 1814 and can return home, he finds that his wife and daughter have died. He takes up a solitary life in his house overlooking the sea. One night he sees a British yacht in distress in a storm. He rushed to her help and discovers that the skipper is the same man that had taken him prisoner and broken his life many years before. He faces a dilemma: will he take revenge on this man, his wife, and daughter or will he save them.
Terje Vigen (played by Sjöström after his original choice for the role dropped out) is a sailor who forsakes a life on the sea following the birth of his baby daughter, Anna. However, after a few years, the outbreak of war with Britain brings to an end the contented life he enjoys with his wife and daughter in a wooden cabin overlooking the sea. The island on which Terje and his family live is blockaded by the British fleet, leaving its inhabitants with a rapidly dwindling food supply. In desperation, Terje volunteers to attempt to run the blockade in his rowing boat and return with barley and grain from the mainland.
Although he succeeds in dodging the blockade on his way out, Terje runs afoul of them on his return. The captain of the British ship orders Terje’s boat to be sunk and orders that he be imprisoned for the duration of the war. Five long years pass before hostilities end and Terje can finally make his way home, but upon arriving there he finds strangers living in his cabin and learns that his wife and daughter died of starvation because of the blockade. Years later, fate offers him an unexpected opportunity to avenge their deaths.
Terje Vigen is a remarkably well-crafted film for 1917, and boasts some beautiful cinematography from Julius Jaenzon. Much of the film takes place outside, which not only helps to avoid the drawback of sparse and unconvincing set decoration, but also emphasises the conflict between man and nature that touched a number of Sjöström’s films. The craggy, rugged landscape has a bleak beauty that nevertheless makes clear the harsh life experienced by those who depend upon it, while the changeable moods of the surrounding sea possess their own dangerous beauty; impassive or turbulent but always unyielding, the sea emphasises the absolute entrapment of the islanders when the blockade begins.
This is a faithful adaptation of the eponymous poem by Henrik Ibsen, and all inter-titles are quotations of Ibsen's original text. The film follows an innovative non chronological structure. In the brief opening scene, old grey-haired Terje Vigen is contemplating a stormy sea. It is followed by a long flash back showing his past life first with his wife and daughter, his trip to Denmark, his capture by the English, his life as prisoner in England, and finally his return home.
There is even a flashback in the flashback when, while in jail, Terje Vigen remembers his wife and daughter. The last part starts with the same scene as the opening one, followed by the rescue of the British yacht. It is interrupted by a brief flashback when Terje Vigen realises the Captain of the yacht is the Englishman who had taken him prisoner. The most remarkable aspect of the film is the outdoor on-location filming on the coast and on small boats, which gives great authenticity to the action, in particular the very realistic chase and sinking of the dinghy in the middle of reefs. Editing is brisk, cross-cutting between views of the two boats and then between the English boat and Terje Vigen trying to escape by swimming underwater.
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.
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