I have often wondered what could be the most satisfying experience: To be a film researcher and sit through a session of old film reels at the Moscow film archives, and suddenly realize that you're watching the beginning of an old, hitherto lost film with Greta Garbo?
Or to sit at your desk at the Swedish Film Archives and one day you receive a call from Poland informing you that a film by legendary silent film maker Mauritz Stiller has been found in a Polish church!
None of this actually happened to me, but to film professor Jan Olsson and the head of the Swedish Film Archives, Jon Wengström. Yesterday, Jon Wengström told us all about it at a screening of these two films at Filmhuset in Stockholm - or rather one film and one fragment.
And then we saw Mauritz Stiller's "Brother Against Brother" ("Gränsfolken") from 1913 and around 11 minutes from Victor Sjöström's "The Divine Woman" with Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson.
This is a still from the beginning of the film, with the main actors, from left, Egil Eide, Edith Erastoff and Richard Lund. Eide and Lund play two brothers, who are in love with the same woman, played by Edith Erastoff. They wear Russian costumes in a film about the tragedies of war in the unnamed distant East - Stiller was a Russian Jew, born in Helsinki, so he might have thought about the very real conflict between Russia and Finland. All three actors became famous in Sweden during the golden silent era. Egil Eide, who was Norwegian, returned to the Norwegian stage around the time when sound came to the movies. Richard Lund continued acting in films, doing mostly bit parts and character roles, and actually had a remarkable career that lasted 50 years. Edith Erastoff married the other great movie director of the period, Victor Sjöström, and eventually retired from the screen.
And here they are, in a film filled with drama, emotions, amazing battle scenes, beautifully staged scenes set outside Visby, on the island of Gotland, and a heartbreaking ending where Edith is left alone, crying over the graves of the two brothers. There is a great moment of silent screen acting, when Robert Lund has been captured and denounced as a spy. He holds his head high, proud of who is is, then, as he slowly realizes that his own brother will be his executioner, his body slowly caves in, he turns into a broken man.
The script was loosely based on a story by Emile Zola and it was Stiller's sixteenth (!) film in his second year as a film maker at Svenska Bio, the Swedish company that later became Svensk Filmindustri. The newly restaured version that I saw yesterday was tinted, just like the original, and the captions had been recreated to look just like they would have, during the original screenings in 1913. This film was a huge success and sold in 41 copies to a long list of countries, among them the USA where it got the title "Brother Against Brother".
And then to the the main attraction, or at least to an old Garbo-fan like myself: the amazing scenes from the lost Garbo movie "A Divine Woman". They are from the beginning of the film, no titles, and with Russian captions and translated, thanks to computers, to Swedish. The scenes are about two lovers, a woman and a soldier, played by Garbo and Lars Hanson, who meet for the last time before he goes off to service.
The scene is set in Paris, there is a glimpse of roof tops through Garbo's window but thank god no Eiffel tower is in view. She is both excited to see him and mad at him for leaving. He is worried about the time, there is a shot of a peculiar clock several times, which Garbo has been fiddling with before his arrival. I assume she is trying to cheat time, and he can't make up his mind if he wants her to or not. There is also an older woman, played by Polly Moran, who makes several remarks about Paris being full of soldiers, as if to say that this lover's meeting has nothing special and tomorrow both of them will have forgotten each other. But both Lars Hanson's and Garbo's faces tell a different story. Their love is true.
Then the fragments end and we are told that there is another short scene saved from this lost film. It has been in the Swedish Television's archives for many years and now we get to see this too, a mere 45 seconds from much later in the film:The soldier, Lars Hanson, is back. Apparently he has suffered, while she, Garbo, has become an elegant lady, in the middle of a party, wearing a silky dress with rather ridiculous ornaments around the ears. She tries to kiss him but he recoils and her hands, she has long, sharp nails now, stiffen...
And that's all. Later I read in on of my books about Garbo that the film "A Divine Woman" was a fictional tale about the great Sarah Bernhardt, an actress enshrined in legend and mystery much the same way Garbo would later be - and already was at the time of this film. In 1928, Garbo made this film in Hollywood with two compatriots: Lars Hanson and Victor Sjöström. This was the only time that she ever worked with Sjöström. Stiller had gone home to Sweden where he died shortly afterwards. Hanson and Sjöström would soon also go back to Sweden.
Much has been made of Garbo's unhappiness, her long, lonely life... But here, in these short scenes, she is happy, she laughs, she is vibrant and funny and young and very, very much alive.