Ingmar Bergman’s choice of Victor Sjöström, then 78, to play Isak Borg in his 1957 film Wild Strawberries, was partly his way of paying tribute to a film-maker whom he much admired and by whom he was deeply influenced. Sjöström made films both in Sweden and America and was one of the chief reasons for the pre-eminence of the Swedish cinema just after the first world war.
Between 1917 and 1921 he made four films of such technical mastery and luminous power that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood lured him across the water.
These films, full of the almost masochistic obsessions of Swedish Protestantism, but also extremely beautiful in their depiction of the elemental forces of nature, caused Sjöström, together with his equally famous fellow director Mauritz Stiller, to be characterised as a gloomy Swede, even though he both acted in and made comedies too. And in America his three most famous works – He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928) – each dealt with human suffering.
The Wind is almost certainly the best – a silent classic, revived in recent years by producer/ director Kevin Brownlow with a Carl Davis score, which gave the great Lillian Gish one of the finest parts of her career.
Like Sjöström himself in Wild Strawberries, Gish dominates the picture as a Southern belle who leaves Virginia for Texas where a hard and desperate pioneer life is to await her. Even before she gets there, we know what the film is about.”Man, puny but irresistible, encroaching forever on Nature’s Fortresses”, announces a title, as the wind blows remorselessly across the desert landscape through which Gish’s Letty Mason passes.
The Texan family, attracted by her delicacy as much as she is repelled by their coarseness, begins to realise that she will be a sexual threat until she marries. So she chooses the more presentable of her two cowpoke suitors, soon realises the situation is impossible and is attracted to a seemingly more sophisticated stranger. He, however, rapes her and she accidentally kills him. She guiltily buries him, only to find that the wind erodes the grave to expose the hand of her victim for all to see.
All very melodramatic. But then the silent cinema could stand more of that than the cinema of both sound and vision. Besides, Sjöström treats the inevitable clash between Letty and her new surroundings with considerable realism and detail, allowing Gish as much leeway as possible to develop her performance.
The entire film was shot in the Mohave Desert under conditions of great hardship and difficulty and this was probably the first “Western” that tried for truth as well as dramatic poetry. One of its masterstrokes, which looks far less self-conscious than any description of it may seem, is the moment when Letty hallucinates in terror at the sight of the partially buried body of her attacker. A white stallion appears in the dust storm as an omen of doom.
The stallion could be either a stray from the herd being rounded up by her husband nearby or the ghost of the North Wind that, according to Native American legend, lives in the clouds. It’s an extraordinary image ending an extraordinary film which even measures up to Greed, von Stroheim’s slaughtered masterwork of 1924.
Sjöström made other films in Hollywood, most of which, including The Divine Woman (1928) with Greta Garbo, have been either destroyed or lost. He was one of the very first group of film-makers whose work convinced often sceptical critics, most of whom had been trained in literature and the theatre, that the cinema was capable of being a fully-fledged art form.
No one would deny that The Wind is a work of art or, after seeing it, cavil much at the opinion of a French critic, who said that Sjostrom was capable of making “the most beautiful films in the world”.