Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 29 July 2004
Reviews: The Outlaw and His Wife
Those familiar with Victor Sjöström only from his appearance in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries will be surprised to learn that the “Father of Swedish Cinema” was once quite a robust man. Whether hanging from cliffs, out-rowing a fleet of sailors, or wrestling larger men to the dirt, the Sjöström of the 1910s and ’20s is a far cry from the hunched and agitated Isak Borg. Indeed, his rugged physicality made him one of the major idols of Swedish silent cinema, as well as one of its great innovators.
However, Bergman’s casting of Sjöström in his film reveals much about the careers of both filmmakers and their shared place at the heart of the Swedish film tradition. For while the sclerotic protagonist of Wild Strawberries is superficially the antithesis of Sjöström’s rustic heroic figures, these characters nonetheless share many qualities. In both directors’ work, the protagonists tend to be outcasts, physically or psychologically removed from an oppressive or effete social order. They also suffer a tragic and ineluctable connection to their past, as well as a desire for an elusive redemption of the spirit. In fact, Bergman’s characters are in many ways modern, bourgeois versions of the more hardy, proletarian characters whom Sjöström portrayed: each is caught between the forces of history and fate and in pursuit of liberation. But where the characters of Bergman’s films seek this self-discovery in a largely internal, discursive milieu (with God’s conspicuous silence in the background), Sjöström’s heroes conduct their struggle in a raw landscape, amid the dispassionate ferocity of Nature.
Two of Sjöström’s films, Terje Vigen and The Outlaw and His Wife, exemplify this character of the pastoral hero and his solitary struggle against his origins and environment. Made in successive years, each film concerns the plight of rural working people, striving to endure in the face of natural, economic, and political hardship. The first of them, Terje Vigen, is based on Ibsen’s narrative poem about a community of Norwegian fisherman terrorized by the British Navy, while The Outlaw and His Wife concerns the farmers and the mountain people of Iceland in the eighteenth century. In this regard, the films evoke a pan-Scandinavian nationalism rooted in bucolic folk culture, but their titles also make plain their concern for the individual. In each film, Sjöström plays the title character, a heroic figure beset by the arduous lifestyle of his people, but also plagued by his own past and place in the world.
As we first see Terje Vigen, a fisherman and old man, he rages against the tumultuous sea and against the cruel fate of his life, which is then told in flashback. Many years earlier, in a time of war, Britain’s Navy fleet occupied the waters off the coast of Norway, making the fishermen’s work impossible. In a desperate effort to save his family and his people from starvation, Terje had stealthily crossed the waters in a small rowboat to retrieve food from a distant village, but was captured (in a thrilling rowboat chase) upon his return. After five years in prison, when Terje finally makes his homecoming, he finds that his family has starved in his absence and his fellow fishermen do not remember him. Now, Terje Vigen is a crazed old man, tortured by memory, guilt, and anger.
In the film’s final act, however, Sjöström’s troubled hero is offered a chance of redemption. When a yacht is caught in a storm offshore, Terje Vigen is the only man brave (or foolish) enough to rescue it. As silent-movie chance would have it, the yacht contains the family of the very same British officer responsible for the fisherman’s capture many years before. Faced with the opportunity to let the family die and thus take his revenge, Terje instead relents, captivated and mollified by the face of the captain’s young daughter. By showing mercy where the British captain did not, Terje Vigen rises above the cruelty of his fate. The film’s final shots depict the humble gravestones of the fisherman’s family with the calm sea in the background, suggesting Terje’s passage into a peaceful, spiritual resignation.
In Sjöström’s subsequent film, The Outlaw and His Wife, the natural world also acts as both a challenge to the protagonists and as a visual metaphor of the conditions of the human soul. In this film, it is the rigors of mountain life –blizzards, cliffs, and little to eat – that provide the backdrop to the physical and spiritual trials of the main characters. As in the previous film, Sjöström portrays a character who has transgressed the laws of his society out of a need to feed his family and paid dearly as a consequence. Berg-Ejvind (or “Mountain Ejvind” in English) is an outlaw from justice, having escaped from prison after stealing food from a miserly parson to save his family from starvation. Ejvind briefly evades capture by posing as a farmer on the property of Halla, a wealthy (and similarly robust) woman (played by Sjöström’s wife, Edith Erastoff). Eventually, the two fall in love, but as the intertitle tells us, “No one can escape his destiny, even if he runs faster than the wind.” When Ejvind’s secret is discovered, he must flee deeper into the mountains, although now he has a devoted wife at his side.
Their flight into the mountains is a search for independence, for a freedom from the constraints of their history and society. In this rugged environment, Ejvind and Halla attempt to remake their world: they fish the mountain lakes for their food, build a home, and have a child. But this beatific paradise they have created is fragile and their independence from the surrounding world an illusion. Once again, the past (and the law) catches up with Ejvind, and in a moment his mountain paradise is destroyed when his child is killed.
The outlaw and his wife, however, escape higher into the mountains, and the film’s final act portrays Ejvind and Halla, like Terje Vigen, wizened and embittered with age and memory. Unlike the fisherman, however, their redemption does not come so happily or so heroically. Trapped by a blizzard in their tiny makeshift hut, racked with guilt and resentment for one another, Ejvind and Halla resolve to die together. The last image of the film depicts the outlaw and his wife, frozen to death in each other’s arms and finally at peace.
Both Terje Vigen and The Outlaw and His Wife explore the same natural and spiritual landscapes that Sjöström consistently developed throughout his career. Even his most famous American film, The Wind, (whose much-maligned ending was concocted by MGM to replace the director’s traditionally Scandinavian denouement) is structured around these same themes. The pitiless force of Nature (here in the form of an incessant sandstorm) functions both as catalyst for the plot and metaphor for the interior lives of the characters. In this way, the influence of Griffith’s films (particularly his Biograph shorts) upon Sjöström is evident: Terje Vigen owes much of its visual force to the precedent of Griffith’s The Unchanging Sea, and the Icelandic mountains of The Outlaw and His Wife recall the Hudson Valley locations of The Red Man’s View. But the spiritual center of Sjöström’s films is entirely his own, and it is this possibility of redemption – however grim or remote – that has served as the model for many of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, the final shot of The Outlaw and His Wife, with the protagonists locked in a frozen embrace, recalls nothing so much as the final shots of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage or Shame, which similarly depict couples resigned to their inescapable, shared destinies.