After viewing these two excellent Swedish silent films from the early days of cinema, I have come to agree with many critics and film historians who believe that Victor Sjostrom might well have been one of the few true pioneers and great directors, even before DW Griffith made his mark on the American film industry. Watching the second feature film on this disc, namely "Ingeborg Holm" which was filmed in 1913 - just a year after full-length feature films began to be made - really made this point clear to me. The film shows remarkable sophistication and depth of characterization, as well as skillful photography and editing which made it feel like I was watching a film from a later period when these aspects of cinematography were more advanced and developed. In fact, the drama of the story is so gripping and heart-rending, involving the viewer so emotionally, that any rawness in style or the few short scenes which show some deterioration in the film are easily overlooked. Ingeborg Holm becomes a widow and struggles to raise her children in an unforgiving and merciless social system which lands her in a workhouse for the poor and her children `boarded out' to foster families. It is a scenario which sadly repeated itself many times in the earlier years of last century, as can be seen from similar themes of early silent films, making this film also something of an historic record of times past. And it's no surprise that "Ingeborg Holm" was a landmark and turning point in Victor Sjostrom's career as a director, but before motion pictures came along, he had been involved in theatre for over a decade, which no doubt laid the foundation for his understanding of drama, acting and conveying characters and their emotions to the audience.
In the first feature film on this disc, Sjostrom directs and also plays the lead role in "A Man There Was", for which he also received high acclaim, particularly for his use of outdoor photography and his penchant for capturing the wild beauty of landscapes as a backdrop to the characters' lives and problems. Based on an epic Scandinavian poem set in the early 1800s, this is also a sad and dramatic story of hardship and tragedy resulting in the struggle and ultimate triumph of the human spirit. Set during a war which affects even small coastal fishing towns, a man is captured by the enemy while trying to get food for his wife and small child, then imprisoned for 5 years which fills him with hate and revenge for the enemy. The intertitles are in the original poetic language, in English and easy to read, adding to the historic and artistic elements of this story, as well as realistically conveying the scenery and way of life in that part of the world in that era. As well as the personal plight of the main character, there are realistic and quite riveting action scenes on ships and on water which also stand out as being sophisticated for its year of 1917. Sjostrom's acting and directing skills were complemented by photographer Julius Jaenzon, who is counted among the half-dozen great Swedish talents and pioneers of the Scandinavian Golden Age of cinema, before German Expressionism took over the world stage in the 1920s. These two films, along with "The Outlaw and his Wife" on the partner-DVD in this new Kino release, show why Victor Sjostrom - or Seastrom - as he was named in the US, was such an important figure on the worldwide scene of early cinema and its development. Perhaps a good orchestral score would have enhanced this fine old films even more, but the piano accompaniment for both is excellent nevertheless, and the picture quality near perfect most of the time, making this DVD a treat for those who find pre-1920 films particularly fascinating for the stories they tell, their style and also their historic significance.