Out of the Celluloid Closet

How a Young Greta Garbo, a Lesbian Novelist, and a Gay Filmmaker Created a Cinematic Masterpiece

· Updated on October 4, 2023

It was in college that I first fell in love with Sweden, or a very specific version of it: grainy, black and white, accompanied by dancing, clever strings, old footage of fires and sprawling manses, endless forests, clear rivers, ice-covered lakes across which a wolf chase might proceed. I discovered the works of the old Swedish masters of cinema and lived for a season under their spell. There was such a distant beauty to it: seeing this crystal-cold foreign land through so many lenses—first the film apparatus, then the lens of silence, then the final lens of history, of time passing. I wanted to live in the worlds Mauritz Stiller created: worlds which would never have existed had not Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and a queer woman whose works were perfectly suited to the art of adaptation.

She’d won that prize by 1909, and less than 10 years later she did something unprecedented: she sold the film rights to her work in toto to the then-new Swedish film institute. From there, they were transformed into cinema, primarily by the Swedish filmmaker Mauritz Stiller, the man now credited with “discovering” Greta Garbo. He cast Garbo in her first notable role, as the Italian countess Elisabeth in an adaptation of Lagerlöf’s 1891 epic, “The Saga of Gösta Berling.”

Stiller had adapted two of Lagerlöf’s works before: the chilling Sir Arne’s Treasure in 1919 and The Blizzard in 1923. But it was in bringing the story of the defrocked, disgraced minister Gösta Berling to life that he reached the apotheosis of his naturalistic, highly influential film style. His was an epic mindset, and Lagerlöf’s popular works were nothing if not epic. Like another great visionary indirectly responsible for shaping Hollywood’s cinematic style, the tragic German expressionist director F.W. Murnau, he didn’t live long enough to see his specific vision inform the way cinematic language worked in America.

When we meet Gösta Berling in the novel, it’s at the start of a long downward spiral. He’s an especially young, beautiful Protestant minister so “young, tall, slender, and radiantly handsome” that you could have “chiseled him in marble and named the image after the most beautiful of Athenians.” He’s drinking before each church service, and everyone knows it. He didn’t used to have a drinking problem, the narrator explains. It’s just that traveling such long, bumpy, icy roads from parish to parish is such grueling work, and the winters are so cold, and Gösta, like all Swedish people, has trouble dealing with the bleakness of it all. So he drinks. And so does his entire congregation.

The film, by contrast, begins after Gösta’s fall from grace. We see his days as a minister in flashback. We see him rail against his congregation for daring to criticize him for the drinking they all do more discreetly. In both versions of the story, Gösta wanders in the snow, hoping for death, until he is found by Majoress Margaretha Samzelius, a powerful, rich society woman who everyone talks about behind her back. For one thing, everyone knows she continually cheated on her husband—a man she was forced to marry as a young woman—with her lover Altringer while he still lived. After Altringer died, he left her his vast ironworks. When we meet her, she’s at the height of her social power: she lords over the grand country estate Ekeby with her “cavaliers,” lost men whom she rescues post-disgrace and installs at the estate. The task of the cavaliers is essentially to hit on women and be fun at parties, but there’s a darkness and desperation to this as well. Although the beauty of the Swedish winter is easy to appreciate at a far remove, these characters have to live with it and in it. Their collective existence is defined by drinking, revelry, fire, and ice. They live lives of great contrast, and this comes across visually. Not only that, but they live lives that are immediate: in consequence, in detail, in effect.

In the text, Lagerlof prioritizes the present tense despite writing, in the 1890s, about a time at least 50 years past. Everything that happens in Gösta Berling is happening right now, even though it all happened years ago. This is to a purpose: these stories are the makeup of Sweden. Can a country ever really say that its troubled past is completely in the rearview? Not with any honesty. Lagerlöf knew what only the best novelists know: that the present is all, especially in a climate defined by those harsh physical elements—ice, wind, and snow—that make it feel inescapable. And yet the past is always knocking at the door, especially if that past remains unresolved.

Sweden’s is—has always been—a cinema of expanse. Stiller has us enter the story from above: an aerial shot of trees with an accompanying couplet proclaiming the beauty of Värmland sets the stage. Before we learn about any of the characters, Stiller explains, we must understand the landscape. No story taking place within Sweden is complete without a visual sense of space: how bodies mean virtually nothing inside of such a place, how human drama and misery must always seem petty in the context of a landscape so cruel and consistent that people can—and do—simply walk into the forest never to be heard from again7. It makes sense that these characters live their lives in such desperation: it’s baked into the landscape. There is a sorrow and an emptiness about it, perhaps even a closer understanding of the Swedenborgian relationship to God: something that combines visions, scripture, psychedelia and a curiosity about new technologies to form a more modern framework of understanding what we see as the divine cruelty of nature. Which is nothing, of course, compared to the cruelty of society.

Queer, closeted, and aging, Garbo left the industry in the early 40s, just when she had started to give the kind of performances she’d be remembered for.

In Berling, everything happens. We see Ekeby destroyed by a great fire. We see a smallpox outbreak. We see, in a horrifying sequence, a woman locked out of her parents’ home to freeze to death in a snowbank simply because she dared to kiss a man she wasn’t married to. In a thrilling, terrifyingly atmospheric chase scene, we see Gösta and Elisabeth (Garbo) pursued by wolves across a frozen lake, a chase that ends at dawn, near a peaceful grove of snow-covered firs. But beneath all the action is the quiet hum of winter, of sounds hushed by falling snow. Lagerlof put it there on purpose. “I have nothing new to tell you,” she writes in “Berling,” “only what is old and almost forgotten.” Both the film and the book carry this melancholy, a sense of time—past, present and future—swirling around in the same deadly yet comforting admixture.

For the past few years, I’ve read Scandinavian novels during the winter, very slowly. First there was the magnificent Lucky Per, followed by Tom Christensen’s Havoc and Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne. This year, I picked up Gösta Berling again, and got to remember how much the story meant to me. Not just for its characters or meaning, especially, but for the world it allowed me to live in. It creates a sort of cocoon in the winter, when everything feels dry, ugly, and bleak, to see the beauty in those freezing climates. Because every Swedish story is a survival story, when it comes down to it. It’s about people living in a place that’s essentially inhospitable to human life, and how they make it work: usually by drinking and bitching and being depressed, and going on long, tortured walks across the ice.

Gösta Berling was Stiller’s last Swedish film before he set sail—with Garbo—for America. But America took from Stiller, as it always does. He didn’t quite work in Hollywood, and there are never real reasons for these things. Garbo, famously, worked there very well, as did for a time Victor Sjöström and Lars Hansen, the other two Swedish imports Stiller’s circle. No one met an especially positive end: Sjostrom’s career ended with the talkies. Hansen, the star of Gösta Berling, had a successful silent film career in the states before moving to Germany in the 30s. Garbo, the only one among them who might be called a traditional American success story, had a famously robust film career, until she didn’t. Queer, closeted, and aging, she left the industry in the early 40s, just when she had started to give the kind of performances she’d be remembered for: those performances that weren’t just about her beauty, but which tapped into her true potential as an actress capable of feeling each line with her entire body, her hard-won experience of the world and what it had been asking of her for the past 40 years.

Nobody got to live the life they wanted to lead: but that was the point. You didn’t come to America in the 20s to be who you already are. You came there to change. To be changed by the experience of America, the experience of success. That’s perhaps the opposite of Gösta Berling’s story.

American cinema remains informed by Stiller’s sense of the possible in film. He didn’t assert this sense, as the German expressionists did, through sharp geometries and showy camera movement. His was a stately power: he understood how to frame the Southern Swedish landscape of Värmland in bringing “Gösta Berling” to the screen. He understood what Lagerlöf did: that Sweden was the story. That players about whom the story ostensibly was told were less important than the stage upon which they played. His was the cinema of atmosphere: of ice and snow, of the dead, desperate feeling you sometimes get in winter that makes you drink deeper and consider pain and pleasure with new detachment. He understood what these frozen stories stood for, and why they were needed.

Stiller, Lagerlöf and Garbo were all people who felt compelled to tell stories of love in a cold climate. Two of them left for greener, warmer pastures. Only one stayed. And both Garbo and Lagerlöf, in their correspondence with the women they loved their entire lives, had to speak in well-documented code unless that love should be revealed.

They all lived for, and inside of, film. Even Lagerlöf, who didn’t see the benefit of it at first, ended up making sure that her work would reach the screen, where more people could see it. She was a pragmatic woman: her sight reached far into the future and deep into the past. “Of all the things that hands have built,” she writes in “Berling,” “what is there that as not fallen and will not fall?”

Only something that is built, but not physical: something manmade but holy, something no sooner seen than committed to memory, there to carve out a permanent home, as so many films have done to me.

Because film is future, film is memory. Film is everything.

On his deathbed, Stiller was still dreaming of film.

“I want to tell you a story for a film, it will be a great film, and you are the only one who can do it,” He told Victor Sjöström while dying. Sjöström promised to come back the next day and hear all about it. But by the next day, Stiller was dead.

It’s said that everyone has a book in them. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. What I do know is that all of us have a great number of films in us. Films that we’ve already made about our lives, and that we replay for ourselves over and over again as we get older.

Whether or not they ever get seen is another story.♦

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