INGEBORG HOLM (Victor Sjöström, 1913, Sweden, 74m, BW)
aka Margaret Day (1913)
aka Ingeborg Holm (1913)
Directed by Victor Sjöström
Written by Nils Krok (also play)
Starring Hilda Borgström
Cinematography Henrik Jaenzon
27 October 1913
Language Silent film
Ingeborg Holm (English: Margaret Day) is a 1913 Swedish social drama film directed by Victor Sjöström, based on a 1906 play by Nils Krok. It is noted as the first true narrative film, its remarkable narrative continuity would characterize the style now known as classical Hollywood, which dominated the global film industry for the majority of the century. It caused great debate in Sweden about social security, which led to changes in the poorhouse laws. It is said to be based on a true story.
Sven Holm and his wife Ingeborg are happily married with three children, and are about to open a shop in Stockholm. They open the shop, but Sven contracts tuberculosis and dies. Ingeborg initially tries to run the shop by herself, but when she fails and develops a debilitating ulcer, she turns to the poorhouse for help. The poorhouse board does not grant her enough assistance to survive outside the workhouse. She has to sell the shop, her house, and board the three children out to foster families.
After some time, Ingeborg reads in a letter that her daughter, Valborg, is sick. The poorhouse can't finance a visit, but the determined Ingeborg escapes at night and, after being chased by police, gets to see the child. When she returns to the poorhouse, the manager is furious that they must pay a fine for the trouble she caused.
Later on, Ingeborg is offered a chance to see her youngest son, this time with the poorhouse's approval. When the child doesn't recognize her, she is devastated. She tries to make a doll from her scarf and play with it, but the baby cries and turns to the foster mother.
This hits Ingeborg so hard that she loses her sanity. She is relegated to the insane women's ward of the workhouse, cradling a plank of wood as if her own child. After fifteen years, her oldest son, Erik, now a sailor, visits her without any knowledge of his mother's psychosis. He becomes desperate when Ingeborg doesn't recognize him—but when he shows her a youthful photograph of herself, which features the inscription "To Erik from mother," her sanity returns. With the return of her family comes the return of Ingeborg's self.
Hilda Borgström as Ingeborg Holm
Aron Lindgren as Sven Holm / Erik Holm as an adult
Erik Lindholm as Employee in Shop
Georg Grönroos as Poorhouse Superintendent
William Larsson as Police Officer
Richard Lund as Doctor
Carl Barcklind as House Doctor
Bertil Malmstedt as Erik Holm as a child
The earliest surviving film by Swedish director Victor Sjostrom is his sixth feature, also known as Give Us This Day (1913). A controversial attack on the welfare system of the period that separated mothers from their children and required forced labor from both, the film follows the widow of a grocer (Hilda Borgstrom) whose bankruptcy leads her and her children through a series of tragedies.
Ingeborg Holm seems to have a lot more in common with the work of D.W. Griffith than Ingmar Bergman. Visually, it could take place in any “western” city; only one brief scene in which the protagonist runs through a field to see her child takes advantage of the Swedish landscape, and everyone except the farmer’s wife who fosters the child is in “modern” urban clothing. Having hinted, I suppose I should comment a bit on the plot: It’s a fairly typical (for 1913) morality play about a woman whose husband dies and is forced to enter the workhouse, losing her children along the way. The message was meant to be that services for the needy should be improved, and apparently it contributed to debate about the need for a better social safety net, helping to lead to the current Swedish welfare state. It’s worth noting, however, that the many similar movies in the US didn’t have as much effect, suggesting that cultural differences cause different responses to media.
Ingeborg Holm, which serves to show how much Sjöström grew as a director in the three years between these two films. The story, based on a book by Nils Krok, centers around the title character, Ingeborg Holm, played with affection by Hilda Borgström.) As the movie opens Ingeborg lives a wonderful life. She's married to a successful man who runs a local store and has loving children. All of that changes suddenly when her husband takes ill and dies. Ingeborg is left running the shop, but she's not cut out for it and the loafing staff along with a bad loan soon forces her into bankruptcy. She is sent off to the poor house, which is bad enough but what makes matters worse is that she's separated from her children. They are placed in foster homes and when Ingeborg hears that her daughter is ill, she plans to escape.
While this movie had a lot of drama and was not overdone the way some silent films are, it was still a bit staid and sedate for my tastes. There are few exterior scene, the things that bring The Outlaw and His Wife and A Man There Was to life, and the camera's lack of movement and fewer editing cuts, something not uncommon in 1913, really lessens the impact of the dramatic scenes. Having said that, Hilda Borgström does a wonderful job in her role. Like a Swedish Lillian Gish, she's able to convey her suffering through body language rather than exaggerated movements. Her performance saves the film, and makes it worth checking out.
Victor Sjöström was born on September 20, 1879, and is the undisputed father of Swedish film, ranking as one of the masters of world cinema. His influence lives on in the work of Ingmar Bergman and all those directors, both Swedish and international, influenced by his work and the works of directors whom he himself influenced. As a boy Sjöström was close to his mother, who died during childbirth when he was seven years old. Biographers see this truncated relationship as being essential to the evolution of his dramatic trope of strong-willed, independent women in his films. He was masterful at eliciting sensitive performances from actresses, such as that of Lillian Gish in his American classic The Wind (1928).
The teenaged Sjöström loved the theater, but after his education he turned to business, becoming a donut salesman. Fortunately for the future of Swedish cinema, he was a flop as a salesman, and turned to the theater, becoming an actor and then director. The Swedish film company Svenska Bio hired him and fellow stage director Mauritz Stiller to helm pictures, and from 1912-15 he directed 31 films. Only three of them survive (it is estimated that approximately 150,000 films, or 80% of the total silent-era production, has been lost). He directed Ingeborg Holm (1913), considered the first classic of Swedish cinema. Despite the exigencies of working in an industrial art form, most Svenska Bio films of this period are embarrassments in an artistic sense--turgid melodramas, absurd romances and shaggy dog-style comedies--and there is no reason to think that the director didn't helm his share of such fare. Even taking that into account, Sjöström managed to develop a personal style. The reason he became internationally famous (and wooed by Hollywood) was the richness of his films, which were full of psychological subtleties and natural symbolism that was integrated into the works as a whole. He dealt with such major themes as guilt, redemption and the rapidly evolving place of women in society.
His 1920 film The Phantom Carriage (1921) (a.k.a. "Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness") was an internationally acclaimed masterpiece, and Goldwyn Pictures hired him to direct Name the Man (1924) (Goldwayn was folded into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, where he worked until shortly after the advent of sound). Sjöström's name was changed to "Victor Seastrom" (a phonetic pronunciation in a country with limited word fonts), and he became a major American director, a pro-to David Lean, who was renowned for balancing artistic expression with a concern for what would play at the box office. His first MGM film was the Lon Chaney melodrama He Who Gets Slapped (1924). It was not only a critical success but a huge hit, getting the new studio off onto a sound footing. He was highly respected by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and by production head Irving Thalberg, who shared Sjöström's concerns with art that did not exclude profit. Sjöström became one of the most highly paid directors in Hollywood, reaching his peak at the end of the silent era (when the silent film reached its maturation as an art form) with two collaborations with Lillian Gish: The Scarlet Letter (1926) and "The Wind" (1926), his last masterpiece.
He departed Hollywood for Sweden after A Lady to Love (1930), returning one last time to helm Under the Red Robe (1937) for 20th Century-Fox, and although he made two movies in Sweden in the intervening years, his career as a director basically ended with the sound era. He returned to his first avocation, acting in Swedish films, in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. In his later years he was a mentor to Ingmar Bergman and gave a remarkable performance in Bergman's masterpiece "Wild Strawberries" (1957), for which he won the National Board of Review's Best Actor Award. In his professional life he was a workaholic, and in his private life was reticent about his films and his fame and remained intensely devoted to his wife Edith Erastoff and his family. Victor Sjöström died on January 3, 1960, at the age of 80.
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