The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924)
Director: Mauritz Stiller
Cast: Lars Hanson, Sven Scholander, Ellen Hartman-CederstrÃ¶m
Synopsis: In Sweden, priest GÃ¶sta Berling is defrocked and publicly humiliated due to his fondness for drink. GÃ¶sta is soon hired by a countess to tutor her daughter, in hopes that he will eventually marry the girl and leave the family estate to the preferred, if foolish, son Henrik.
Based on Selma Lagerlof’s best-selling novel, The Saga of Gosta Berling is a long and not too enthralling melodrama now remembered chiefly for bringing the nineteen-year-old Greta Garbo to the attention of the world. In truth, she has only a supporting role and is very much in the background until the movie’s last half-hour when she takes centre-stage, and to be honest it’s her looks rather than acting ability that get her noticed.
Directed by Mauritz Stiller, the movie lasts for more than three hours, and it’s fair to say that its pace can be described as relaxed. We’re introduced to an ever-expanding cast of characters in the opening half-hour, all of whom revolve around the initially dissolute title character, played by Lars Hanson, a former vicar who, after being defrocked because of his drinking, becomes a tutor to Ebba (Moria Martenson), the step-daughter of Martha Dohna (Ellen Hartman-Cederstrom). However, Martha has an ulterior motive for hiring Berling: she hopes that he and Ebba will become lovers so that Ebba will break the conditions of her inheritance, which will then pass on to her own son Henrik (Torsten Hammaren), who has married an Italian woman (Garbo) with no dowry.
This subterfuge provides just the starting point for a succession of plot developments that have all the substance of a soapy pot-boiler. It’s true that there’s a kind of epic scope to the story, and there are a few memorable scenes, including an impressive fire in a stately home and a truly majestic shot of a sled being chased across a frozen lake by a pack of ravenous wolves, but the movie spends too long dwelling on the emotional turmoil that seems to engulf all who come into contact with Berling. The Saga of Gosta Berling certainly has a place in movie history — in a way it marked the beginning of a lengthy hiatus for Swedish cinema because much of the talent emigrated to Hollywood following its international success — but has only limited appeal today.
(Reviewed 22nd July 2013)