In between Victor Sjöström and Luchino Visconti there is a glorious spate of international auteurs that range from cinematic innovators from the silent era to those who continue to push the limits of film in their contemporary work, carrying on the rich traditions of those who came before them and directly referencing these innovators in their work, re-interpreting the past for modern movie-going audiences, often brilliantly.
(1879 - 1960)
Three Key Films: The Phantom Carriage (1921), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Wind (1928)
Underrated: The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)
Unforgettable: Letty (a career-best Lillian Gish), shot in agonized close-up, as the sandstorm wailing outside the door of her shack threatens to tear both her and the entire place to pieces. Insidiously, her new environment has eroded her mind and in this moment, Letty goes from perfectly rational city girl on the prairie to wide-eyed madwoman lost in the eye of a monstrous Texas cyclone. Though The Wind is one of the final films of the silent era, this ghostly image is always the first that comes to mind when I think of silent film, for the very expressiveness of that violent moment defines what can be said onscreen without words.
The Legend: Sjöström is arguably best known to today’s cinephile crowd as an actor rather than a director, appearing in the key leading role of Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s melancholic masterpiece about aging, Wild Strawberries (1957), for which he was recently celebrated in PopMatters’ 100 Essential Male Film Performances as one of the classics that everyone should know. Even though his uncomfortability with the form’s transition into sound is allegedly what sparked his return to the theater and to acting, as a pioneering film director Sjöström’s contribution to cinema as both a visual storyteller and technician remains one of the most under-appreciated of the silent era.
Beginning in his native Sweden, where he made over forty films after leaving the theater and before being drawn to Hollywood by Louis B. Mayer, Sjöström honed his craft on films such as Sons of Ingmar (1919) and Karin, Daughter of Ingmar (1920). Though much of his early Swedish ouevre has been forever lost, Sjöström would come to be known for building poetic, surrealist paens to love, obsession, and brutality in the decade that immediately preceded the first sound films. Initially, his stylistically-innovative work was more than often dismissed by critics of the time as a pastiche of old conventions, of techniques that were quickly going out of vogue, from expressive, theatrical acting performances to the clean, clear moments of repetitive visual symbolism (think the wedding ring or the transposed, braying horses in The Wind). Thankfully, modern film critics have slowly but surely given Sjöström his proper due as one of the medium’s earliest and most influential artists to dynamically cross international borders as an actor, and most importantly, as a director who seemed to be in constant pursuit of technical excellence and innovation through pure artistic impulse and expression. Matt Mazur