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Within four years, from when Victor Sjöström made "The Gardener" (1912) and "Ingeborg Holm" (1913) to "Terje Vigen" (1917) and this film, "The Girl from the Marsh Croft", his filmmaking style had evolved from being static and primitivehis earlier films lacked much scene dissection or changes in camera placementto the adoption of continuity editing, including extensive scene dissection, changes in camera position and movement. This transition largely reflects the changes in the movie industry in general, which were being spearheaded in Hollywood by the likes of D.W. Griffith. Continuity editing and the freeing of the camera is largely what makes movies by 1917 so enjoyable and the lack thereof in earlier movies, especially pre-"The Birth of a Nation" (1915), that causes most early feature-length films to be nearly intolerable to sit though.
"The Girl from the Marsh Croft" is an important film in Sjöström's oeuvre for another reason. It's his first adaptation of a novel by Nobel-Prize-laureate Selma Lagerlöf. Some of the most outstanding films of Sweden's cinematic golden age were based on her stories, including "Sir Arne's Treasure" (1919), "The Phantom Carriage" (1921) and "The Saga of Gosta Berling" (1924). This particular scenario afforded Sjöström to vividly capture the rustic lives and natural landscapes of the Swedish province of Värmland. Film historian Peter Cowie ("Scandinavian Cinema") mentions that Sjöström's treatment especially had an influence on Carl Theodor Dreyer's "The Parson's Widow" (1920).
The story deals with some harsh social issues as in Sjöström's earliest films, but without too much of the heavy-handed melodrama. The film begins by introducing us to a woman (played by Greta Almroth) with an illegitimate baby, but after the opening scene, we never see the child again (which seems awkward now that I mention it). There's the requisite love triangle and a murder mystery, but they resolve themselves with relative ease. Even Hildur (played by Karin Molander), the shrewish fiancée of the male lead, Gudmund (played by Lars Hanson in a career-making role), turns out to be sympathetic. Although I prefer the Swedish films of this era where nature takes on more of the role of a character or, rather, an antagonistic role towards the films' characters, such as in "Terje Vigen" and "Sir Arne's Treasure", this film remains enjoyable due to this more subtle narrative, its natural settings and, most importantly, its good pacing due to continuity editing.
The first shots of the film are panoramic landscape views and a dolly out from the title character gently rocking her baby. There's no comparable camera movement in the rest of the movie, but there is continued use of slight panning and tilting, and the editing and changes in camera positioning keeps the picture moving. The use of reverse-angle shots is especially prominent, as is the use of iris shots for closer views during scene dissection and transitions between scenes. The continuity editing style of scene dissection and heavy use of iris shots especially seem Griffith-esque. Perhaps the exemplary scene stylistically in "The Girl from the Marsh Croft" is the courtroom scene, which happens early on in the picture.
The anthology book "Nordic Explorations: Film Before 1930" features two independent essays ("Towards Classical Narration? Georg af Klercker in Context" by Astrid Söderbergh Widding and "'A Dangerous Pledge': Victor Sjöström's Unknown Masterpiece, Mästerman" by Tom Gunning) that include detailed analyses of this scene. Widding uses it to compare Sjöström's "dynamic narration" to the static character of a contemporary director's film. In fact, Widding suggests that this film, based on having an average shot length of only six seconds, has the fastest pace of any Swedish film of its time. Both Widding and Gunning, however, also note that Sjöström didn't always follow the rules of the classical style. They both note his violations of the 180-degree rule, from which Widding says, "a circular sense of narrative space is constructed." Gunning suggests that Sjöström corrected this with the second master shot in the scene for dramatic reasons. He also mentions the central importance of the emotions of the title character Helga's role in determining changes in framing. It is this moment, after all, where a scarlet outcast, in the words of Gudmund, "had become for him a standard by which he measured people ."
(Note: There are two mirror shots: one in the opening scene when Helga dresses to go out and another later on when the bride, Hildur, is being prepared.)
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