Tumbling through the Arms of Women: The Saga of Gösta Berling
Note: This is the hundred-and-twenty-ninth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1924 film, THE SAGA OF GÖSTA BERLING, directed by Mauritz Stiller.
Gösta Berling was the strongest and weakest of men, as one intertitle of his titular saga reads. Lars Hanson’s defrocked priest is a character worthy of respect, pity, love, contempt; his journey through Mauritz Stiller’s ambitious three-hour epic is circuitous. Stiller’s adaptation of GÖSTA BERLING’S SAGA (1891), the novel by the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Selma Lagerlöf, is a touching and heightened piece of melodrama.
Stiller was second only to Victor Sjöström as a great pioneer of Swedish silent film, and GÖSTA BERLING was his greatest work. Although Sjöström ultimately didn’t have an incredibly long tenure in Hollywood, he directed incredible pictures like HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) and THE WIND (1928). When Stiller made the move in 1925, he didn’t really find even that level of success, in spite of commercial returns at Paramount; Stiller just couldn’t deal with the tight control of the Hollywood studio system. He returned to Sweden the next year, and died in 1928 at the age of 45. And yes, he discovered Greta Garbo, or Greta Gustaffson as she was then known.
Trying to encapsulate the plot of THE SAGA OF GÖSTA BERLING would take up more time than I’d really like to spend on the matter. A lot happens in this movie, as you might imagine for one that runs just over three hours. But it moves quickly; the descent of Gösta, fueled by alcohol, calls for attention. As he moves from being a controversial and ill-fitted priest to a “knight of Ekeby,” a group of rowdy outsiders nevertheless sponsored by the lady of the estate, the constant is Gösta’s loves. The women in his life sustain him and the story.
As fellow Ekeby “knight” Christian Bergh (played to great supporting effect by Svend Kornbeck) says, “Women will be the death of you, Gösta. Go drink yourself into oblivion.” But as Farran Smith Nehme points out in this fantastic and informative essay on the film, “women are the best things in Gösta’s life.”
His patron, the tragic figure Margaretha Samzelius, is played by the great Swedish stage actress Gerda Lundequist. She delivers an incredible performance of an aging yet graceful and powerful lady driven to depression and violent acts by the secrets of her past. Gösta loves her, but not as passionately as the romantic liaisons to come.
First, there is his pupil Ebba, a devout young woman who wastes away upon learning of Gösta’s past. Then there’s Marianne, a much more commanding presence whose brief kiss with Gösta sends her into exile by her father.
Ultimately, though, it’s Garbo’s countess who serves as the emotional resolution for Gösta’s complicated saga. The moment when the pair reunite at the very end of the film is a potent conclusion to a film fraught with confused identity, love, and relationships.
These relationships, including the platonic yet closely bonded ones between the knights of Ekeby, represent a highly dramatized microcosm of our lives. Gösta’s circles shrink and expand in such quick succession across the nevertheless long film, but his dark past, revived prospects that are nevertheless dashed, and final satisfaction in the arms of Garbo’s Elizabeth chart the path of serial monogamy, complicated as it is by alcoholism and self-destructive behavior. That is the modern, emotional context of THE SAGA OF GÖSTA BERLING.