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Kino on Video presents

The Saga of Gosta Berling (Gösta Berlings saga) (1924)

"Life must be lived. One has to move on."- Gosta Berling (Lars Hanson)

Stars: Lars Hanson, Greta Garbo
Other Stars: Ellen Hartman, Mona Martensson, Torsten Hammarén, Gerda Lundeqvist, Jenny Hasselqvist
Director: Mauritz Stiller

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material, mild violence)
Run Time: 03h:04m:07s
Release Date: 2006-06-06
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-BA- B+


DVD Review

The Saga of Gosta Berling is notable for a number of things. Set in the early 19th century, it is one of the biggest epics of the Swedish cinema, it also is one of the last great Swedish films, and it marks the first leading role of a young Greta Garbo, already visibly being molded into the iconic star. Based on a book by Nobel Prize-winner Selma Lagerlof (who also frequently collaborated with director Mauritz Stiller), it is a sprawling piece that covers numerous stories, intertwining them effortlessly as they all work toward a common climax.

The title character (Lars Hanson) is a defrocked young vicar, given to drink and romanticism. The fates of three families revolve around him and his loves over an indeterminate period of time. He first is engaged by Martha Dohna (Ellen Hartman) to act as the tutor to her stepdaughter, Ebba (Mona Martensson), as part of a scheme to deprive the girl of her inheritance. While Ebba falls in love with Gosta, he meets her stuffy half brother Henrik (Torsten Hammarén) and Elisabeth (Garbo), his beautiful young Italian (!) wife, and an attraction begins to form between the tutor and Elisabeth as well. After Ebba learns the truth, Berling winds up at the neighboring estate of Ekeby, where he becomes one of a party of dissolute hangers-on. Ekeby is owned by Major Samzelius (Otto Elg-Lundberg) and his wife Margaretha (Gerda Lundqvist), an uncomfortable relationship to say the least since the estate was left to them by Margaretha's former lover. That fact rankles at the Major, who can barely keep his rage in check both at this fact and at the uncouth assemblage of "knights" on the property. The third family is that of the Sinclaires, who are the aunt and uncle to Elisabeth. Their only child, Marianne, yearns to be an actress but when she is seen kissing Gosta Berling, she is disowned by the family in a fit of rage, leaving her alone in the world.

Such hasty rejection is a common theme running through the story. Ebba rejects Gosta, furious at being deceived, though she incorrectly blames him, rather than her mother. The Major casts his wife out and falls into a drunken depression, letting the knights wreak havoc on Ekeby. Equally perturbed, Margarethe returns and burns Ekeby to the ground in a spectacular set piece that in smaller scale anticipates the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. Marianne is disowned in haste by her family, only to fall into destitution, ravaged by smallpox. Elisabeth's husband learns that she has feelings for Gosta and throws her out as well, not paying any attention to the fact that she has remained faithful despite her attractions. And Elisabeth, in turn, even after being rejected by Henrik, cannot bring herself to be unfaithful with Gosta when the opportunity presents itself. Nearly every one of these hasty rejections ends badly, in death, despair, or destruction. Only when the rejections are rethought and resolved are any of the central families happy.

To a certain extent, Gosta himself is a cipher, reflected in the stories of these other families and their complex relationships. His motivations are seldom clear, though he does have a fondness for beauty (a point voiced eloquently by Marianne as she sees him cringing when he first looks on her pox-ravaged face). He seems like a prototypical slacker, who can rouse himself to action on the odd occasion when it's really demanded of him. When that happens, he's capable of significant things. When about to lose his position as vicar, he rouses himself to give the sermon of a lifetime, earning the commendations and plaudits of his congregation, only to reject them angrily in a fit of pique (yet another hasty rejection with unpleasant consequences). Late in the film, challenged by Elisabeth, he finds the inner strength to rebuild Ekeby after its devastation, but still cannot bring himself to force his attentions on Elisabeth. Their relationship seems imperfectly developed; in spots it seems that vital bits are missing, which may be the result of missing footage (the film underwent substantial reconstruction in 1975 using all extant materials, and may or may not be complete), or it may simply assume a familiarity with Lagerlof's book that modern American audiences are unlikely to have.

At times the film feels like a faithful rendering of a Russian novel, since it does tend to be focused on the personal lives and torments of a large and intertwined cast. But it's never dull, even when watching both parts in one sitting of over three hours. There are plenty of intrigues to follow and the leads are pleasantly understated for the most part. Only in the last few reels does spectacle take over, and when it does, it does so with a vengeance. Right after the fire, Elisabeth and Gosta find themselves pursued in a sleigh on a frozen lake, pursued by a horde of ravenous wolves. Shot guerrilla style, this sequence has a documentary and realistic effectiveness that probably couldn't be captured with modern techniques. Those interested in Garbo will find that she gets plenty of screen time, and photographer Julius Jaenzen at times lights her in absolutely spectacular manner. She's quite clearly a star here, and everyone is made to know it in no uncertain terms. Shortly after this film was completed, she, Stiller and Hanson would all head to Hollywood, following Victor Sjöström, leaving the Swedish film industry in a ruinous state that it would not recover from for decades.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full frame picture is rather soft, and is lacking in clarity and detail. This could be a reflection of the state of the source materials, or it's possible that this is an older video transfer. In any event, whites in some sequences have a tendency to be blown out and greyscale is somewhat reduced. There is no PAL/NTSC ghosting, however, so that's positive. The source materials do appear to be in fine shape, with only the odd bit of dust or damage affecting it here and there. It's quite watchable, though not quite up to the standards of many recent silent film transfers.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: Composer Matti Bye contributes a score for piano quintet (playing piano himself) that is an intriguing mix of folk-tinged material and 1920s era experimental sounds. It's an intriguing assemblage that works surprisingly well, given the subject matter. There's plenty of atmosphere to the recording, which has fine range and good bass extension. Harmonics on the violin come across quite well. There's a fair amount of surround activity, making it a quite immersive piece of accompaniment. Bye always keeps the onscreen action clearly in mind, on occasion using the small group to humorous effect to comment on the story.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:33m:36s

Extra Extras:
  1. Additional rare Garbo footage
Extras Review: The same Stiller bio and filmography found on the DVDs of his Sir Arne's Treasure and Erotikon are repeated here. The same featurette on Stiller, narrated by Peter Cowie, found on those DVDs, reappears on this disc, with the option to play it together with a 5m:40s segment devoted specifically to Gosta Berling. It's quite solid, as one would expect from Cowie, though he does tend to spend more time talking about Garbo than the movie itself.

Garbo probably is the main attraction for most folks here, and there are several items that the Garbo devotee should cherish. The first is a 3m:55s set of 1920-21 advertising films starring a barely recognizable Garbo, which apparently constitutes her very first film footage. Second is a 9m:48s excerpt from Luffarpetter, which finds a slightly chubby but still recognizable Garbo (under the name Gustafsson) in bathing suit, frolicking with two other young women. If there's a plot, it's not discernable from this fragment; a short text summary of the story would have been most welcome. The final piece of film is newsreel footage from 1929, as Garbo, now a major Hollywood star, emotionally departs back to the United States. She's clearly not acting here, and the sense of loss and unhappiness is palpable during its short (1m:35s) running time.

Chaptering is a shade thin for such a long motion picture. This DVD is a rarity in that it uses dual layer technology, switching layers and moving the laser back to the center of the disc at the intermission, instead of utilizing the more standard RSDL method. As a result, a few more bits are available for the feature and the significant extras. But since it's at the intermission, the layer shift is hardly noticeable. Very thoughtfully done.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

The last great silent Swedish spectacle, restored to something like its full original splendor, with several extras that will be devoured eagerly by Garbo fans.

Mark Zimmer 2006-09-01