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Ingeborg Holm's husband opens up a grocery store and life is on the sunny side for them and their three children. But her husband becomes sick and dies. Ingeborg tries to keep the store, but because of the lazy, wasteful staff she eventually has to close it. With no money left, she has to move to the poor-house and she is separated from her children. Her children are taken care of by foster-parents, but Ingeborg simply has to get out of the poor-house to see them again... Written by
Victor Sjöström's early feature film "Ingeborg Holm" is not only considered by many the first film in the golden age of Swedish cinema lasting from 1913 to 1924 but also the real beginning of Swedish cinema in general. A film scholar, Peter Cowie, for one, claims that the film marks the highest achievement of the seventh art before David Wark Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) which was to follow two years after. Although "Ingeborg Holm" is not as well known as many of its contemporary films, it surely stands out from the crowd to anyone who has seen more than a few films from the period. "Nothing like this was being made in 1913," writes Peter von Bagh, a Finnish film historian, capturing the historical importance of the film. The film's authenticity, realism, and moral seriousness have even been seen to bear far-reaching connections to Italian neorealism.
As many of the films of the Swedish golden age, "Ingeborg Holm" is also based on a literary source. It is based on a play by Nils Krok. The story concerns a married woman, Ingeborg Holm whose husband dies just after earning credit for establishing his own business. After the death of her husband, Ingeborg falls to the bottom of the society, loses her children to foster parents, and eventually ends up in an asylum.
The film is very raw and poignant in showing the grim consequences of social actions. It never, however, turns its back on the individual. Although it can be seen as a story of one woman's abasement, it grows into an intimate treatise on the sickness of a society that lacks humanity and tenderness. The shot of Ingeborg losing her children as a bureaucratic official calmly signs the documents in the background is definitive to say the least. The social reality as well as the psychological turmoil and suffering ignored by the society are relayed in a stark and riveting fashion. The scene bears a visual parallel to an earlier scene in which Ingeborg's husband dies in the foreground, while their children are innocently playing in the background of the image -- in another space, almost as if in another time, too.
Already the first film of the movement gives us its basic lessons: acting is more realistic than theatrical (to as large an extent as one can imagine given the film was made in 1913), moral themes are presented with the utmost seriousness, and emphasis lies on the simplicity and careful precision of mise-en-scène. Above all, the power of light is vital which was to be consummated in Sjöström's subsequent films such as "Terje Vigen" (1917) and "Körkarlen" (1921). In the beginning of the film, Ingeborg tries to continue her late husband's business, but fails, and we see the darkness in the grocery store almost swallowing her whole from the scarce source of light in the space.
Overall, and quite surprisingly, "Ingeborg Holm" lacks a sentimental or overly melodramatic tone. Sjöström's tone is subtle and restraint which once again reminds one of Italian neorealism. Although the film has no drama of nature which one so closely associates with the golden age of Swedish cinema, it uses a lot of outdoor on-location shooting, and its grimness, sobriety, and artistic excellence bring the style of the movement to mind very vividly. All in all, the film stands as a perfect instance for Peter Cowie's seemingly exaggerated claim that "there is no more stirring feat in the entire history of silent film than the Swedish achievements between 1913 and 1921." Sjöström's "Ingeborg Holm" is precisely this to any film enthusiast: something utterly stirring.
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