THE REJECTION OF ‘NORDIC NATIONAL ROMANTICISM’ THROUGH FILM FORM AND NARRATIVE IN VICTOR SJOSTROM’S 1913 INGEBORG HOLM.

by Paloma Nicol

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Victor Sjöström’s 1913 film Ingeborg Holm is a prime example of how film can influence wider society. Not only did this film positively alter public opinion on social security, but it became a catalyst for legal change in the form of the Swedish Poor Law Act of 1918. Ingeborg Holm portrays the raw reality of poverty and death in early 1900’s Sweden. Adapted from a play, the film follows a middle-class woman and her family who fall into a downward spiral of poverty due to the death of the father.  

         

In many ways, however, this film has a deeper meaning which can be read allegorically as Sjostrom’s attempt to disregard the ideas of National romanticism to portray a broken society masked by an idealistic view of Swedish culture. Nordic Romanticism became the foundation and appeal of Scandinavian cinema during the silent film period of the 1910’s, as highlighted by Kristin Thomson and David Bordwell, “Swedish films were characterised by their dependence on northern landscapes and by their use of local literature, costumes and customs.”[1] These elements succeeded in making Swedish cinema unique but also generated a romantic, idyllic view of the country, which disregard the realities of social issues. In this idyllic image of Sweden, advances in gender equality meant that women did not require welfare. In reality however, this left women to suffer the consequences of poverty. This essay argues that Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm managed to refute the notions of National Romanticism through film form and narrative, to generate national debate about social security and ultimately influence the 1918 Poor Law. Although this essay focuses on the final scene, it is important to reference the wider plot to analyse the allegorical nature of the narrative. The opening scene features the idealistic, progressive view of Sweden during the 1910s through the image of the Holm family. The Holms are the epitome of the ideal family, being middle-class, with perfect children and a beautiful countryside house, a home which quickly changes to a poorhouse. This location is significant in relation to the national romanticism we see Sjöström reject. As previously mentioned, Swedish films like Trädgårdsmästaren (The Gardener) and The Outlaw and His Wife, depended on picturesque northern landscapes. By setting Ingeborg Holm in a grimy poorhouse within a poverty-stricken city, he dismisses this romanticised version of the country to expose the reality of poverty and inequality. In addition to the location, the composition of the opening shot establishes the toddler as a key character throughout the narrative, and especially the final scene. Sjöström places the toddler at the forefront of the shot, beside his mother Ingeborg. Through this depth of staging, Jan Olsson argues, “The little boy, introduced on the thresh-hold of the diegesis, therefore turns into the very emblem of the family idyll.”[2] The toddler is innocent and even as he grows up in the final scene, is relatively ignorant of poverty. This composition could also foreshadow the vulnerability Ingeborg faces after her husband’s death. Although in the eyes of the state she is perfectly capable to look after her children, in reality, she requires the state to take on the role of the caregiver.  She is put in a position where she is just as powerless as her small children.

In Sweden during this time, laws were put in place which prevented welfare to promote equality between men and women. On the surface these changes proved that both genders were capable and independent, however in many cases such as Ingeborg’s, it plunged families into poverty.  This is highlighted by Kerstin Holmlund who explains that “mothers who were widowed or were the only able-bodied parent retained the legal responsibility to maintain their families.”[3]  This meant that women who were assumed capable to work “could not reckon on any material or financial assistance from the Poor Relief.”[4]  Again, we see the state projection the illusion of equality and progression by giving woman more responsibility. However, through Ingeborg’s story, Sjöström unmasks the issues which are hidden by this illusion of national romanticism.  The perfect family we see in the opening scene typifies the idyllic image of Sweden through national romanticism, a parallel to the way in which society was constructed and stereotypes which remain even today. In the denouement of the narrative, we see the romantic view of Sweden become fragmented and questioned, a scene which Sjöström skilfully uses elements of cinematography and symbolism to elicit emotion from the audience.

Fundamentally, one of the most telling scenes of Ingeborg Holm which portrays Sjöström’s rejection of National romanticism is the final scene where a grown-up Erick visits his mentally ill mother. The audience learn that Erick has carried a photograph of his mother since they were brutally separated in the poorhouse, a photograph which is symbolic in portraying the Ingeborg before her trauma. To Erick’s knowledge, his mother has not changed from the smiling person in the photograph meaning he receives a shock in that his mother has been mentally ill for a long time and has visibly aged. As an outsider, Erick is completely unaware of the trauma she has gone through, therefore regards her as she is in the photograph – happy and healthy. The disparity between the photograph and reality revealed to Erick during his visit is symbolic and represents the international romanticised view of Sweden through film which concealed an entrenched trauma for people like Ingeborg. As explained by Ann-Kristin Wallengren and Charlotte Merton, this deception “contributed to the process of constructing a national identity, which to a large extent went hand in hand with the Swedish nation’s dominant ideology.”[5] The constructed image of Sweden, just like the image of Ingeborg, stopped citizens from seeing the reality of poverty in their own country, which disregarded financial burdens and worries of widowed mothers and consequently prevented welfare.

The technical elements of this scene are powerful in expressing the emotion which changed national opinion and generated debate in Sweden about the future of social security. Sjöström’s dynamic use of stage depth is evident during the final minutes of the film when Ingeborg enters from a door in the back left side of the shot. At this moment, both men have their backs turned away from the camera, which means that Ingeborg is the focal point of the shot. This is a technique that Sjöström used throughout the film, such as when the father dies, and reinforces the idea of idyllic image masking a distressing reality which I previously discussed. When the father dies, there are two events happening simultaneously, one of which is the father dying in the foreground and the other is the family happily eating and laughing in the background. Here the audience are being projected two different narratives, one of the ideal family and the other of death and decay. This becomes a parallel to Sjöström’s rejection of national romantism - now the decay is forefront, as it should be in terms of government legislation. In this final scene, the manager of the poorhouse and the nurse are in the background whilst Ingeborg and Erick remain at the front just as they were in the opening scene. This is significant as the characters who represent the state, and who have kept her trapped in poverty and madness have gone, the only one who even tries to help is her son. As an element which criticised the state for its negligence, the film, through techniques like staging depth, generated debate, and fuelled arguments for legal change in 1918.

Featuring a very long static shot, with no close-ups or rhythmic editing, the scene is reduced to very simple, understated cinematography. This simplicity creates a physical barrier between the audience and characters, meaning instead of being put in the situation ourselves, we are watching the events unfold. In some ways Sjöström’s decision to film the scene like this is emotionally more powerful as a raw, genuine story without compromising the overall aesthetic of the film. Again, this understated appearance rejects the idea of an image, therefore tying it back to the rejection of national romanticism.                          

Ingeborg’s story is one which, through Sjöström’s emotional use of cinematography and narrative unmasked issues of social security within Sweden which rejected the notion of Nordic Romanticism. Producing a film which was highly political which moved away from the picturesque landscapes and idyllic society of Sweden made Ingeborg Holm a film for change, whereby people were forced to look at the welfare issues this image created within the country. As an allegorical narrative, Ingeborg Holm becomes a metaphor for state negligence where women’s struggles with poverty were hidden underneath progress in gender equality. Evident throughout the film, however especially prominent in the final scene, Sjöström employs techniques such as mise-en-scene and symbolism which allude to the contrast between image and reality, image being the foundation of National romanticism. Clearly, the story of Ingeborg brought to light some of the difficulties this image of progress brought for single or widowed mothers in their attempt to gain welfare. Inspired by this film, the Swedish government implemented the 1918 Poor Law Act, indicating that Ingeborg Holm not only changed views in society but also prompted necessary legal change.

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[1] Kristin Thomson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2019) 55
[2] Jan Olsson, “Nils Krok's social pathos and Paul Garbagni's style – Ingeborg Holm as object lesson”, Film History, 22 (2010), 80
[3] Kerstin Holmlund, “Poor laws and schooling in Stockholm”, History of Education Review, 42 (2013), 48
[4] Kerstin Holmlund, “Poor laws and schooling in Stockholm”, History of Education Review, 42 (2013), 47
[5] Ann-Kristin Wallengren and Charlotte Merton, “Welcome Home Mr Swanson Swedish Emigrants and Swedishness on Film”, Nordic Academic Press, 87 (2015) 94