The Saga of Gosta Berling, Mauritz Stiller’s epic adaptation of Selma Lagerlof’s hugely popular novel, ran well over three hours when it was originally released in Sweden. Like Gone with the Wind, it was such a well-known book that Stiller felt the need to include most of its characters and incidents. In America, Gosta Berling has been seen in many shortened versions which have run from an hour to just under three hours, and this 184-minute Kino version is likely the longest and most complete print of Gosta Berling available, though it still feels disjointed. The film has long been overshadowed by the appearance of Stiller’s protegee Greta Garbo in her first substantial role on screen. She turns up about 40 minutes into the film, disappears for most of the second hour, then steals the movie completely in the last 15 minutes. As an Italian Countess in love with Lars Hanson’s sexy defrocked priest, Garbo is a bit tentative physically and seems scared when asked to interact with others, but she has several close-ups that stop the movie cold (she asked for champagne before her big scenes, and the resulting tipsiness in her eyes reads as voluptuous sensual abandon). In the movie’s most famous sequence, a sleigh ride chase across icy tundra, Hanson and Garbo create a real erotic excitement based on the contrast between his assurance and her tingly, nervous submission. Aside from Garbo’s scenes, Gosta Berling is basically just a long soap opera about despair, superstition, and redemption. Stiller’s direction is only adequate most of the time, and there are a lot of mismatched eyelines and shots that feel off-balance and uncertain. Its theme of a hypocritical society dealing harshly with those who transgress against its rules is sketchy at best, so that a modern audience spends a lot of time just waiting for Garbo to reappear.
The restoration by the Swedish film institute is thorough (though a lot of the scenes look excessively bleached out) and the score by Matti Bye is interestingly modernist and driving.
Kino has included everything Garbo did before Gosta Berling: a few advertising films and a 10-minute excerpt from her first movie, LuffarPeter (Peter the Tramp), a Sennett-style comedy where she cavorts awkwardly in leather shorts and a bathing suit. The only thoughts that these early scraps engender is, "Wow, Garbo really looks awful." A feature where Peter Cowie talks about Stiller, the Swedish silent period, and Stiller's more talented contemporary, Victor Sjöström, is informative but too brief.
A thorough DVD package for this rare early Garbo film.