'The Emperor of Portugallien' was originally a novel by Selma Lagerlof, an early recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her novels remain popular in Scandinavia; elsewhere, she is now remembered (if at all) only for her very long children's novel 'The Adventures of Nils'. I suspect that the plot of 'The Emperor of Portugallien' was at least partly inspired by the astonishing true story of 'Emperor' Joshua Norton, a 19th-century Englishman who went insane in San Francisco and became convinced that he was the emperor of the United States. The locals supported him in his delusion for the rest of his life, and then gave him a state funeral ... which is not what happens to the delusional 'emperor' in this story.
Swedish actor-director Victor Sjostrom had a brief career as a Hollywood director in the silent era, when his difficulty with English was less of a handicap than it would have been during the talkies era. Among the films he directed at MGM was 'The Tower of Lies', the first film version of 'The Emperor of Portugallien'. 'The Tower of Lies' is an interesting failure. It contains some annoying affectations, such as a meaningless series of establishing shots in which major characters are introduced via close-ups of their feet. More fatally, 'The Tower of Lies' has a very confusing mise-en-scene. Some portions of that movie appear to take place in 19th-century Sweden (as in the original novel). Other scenes apparently take place in a Swedish-American community somewhere in the 20th-century United States (probably Minnesota). Most annoyingly, some sequences of 'The Tower of Lies' unspool in a backlot limbo that can't seem to decide whether it's 19th-century Sweden or 20th-century America. 'The Tower of Lies' is a film of sufficient merit that it deserves to be better known, but it is far short of a masterpiece.
The 1944 film version of 'The Emperor of Portugallien' (made in Sweden during WW2) features Victor Sjostrom (director of 'The Tower of Lies' ) in the lead role, but this time he does not direct. This film is in several ways an improvement over his previous version. Among its other assets, this remake is much more faithful to Lagerlof's novel.
Sjostrom portrays Jan, an impoverished tenant farmer. Although Jan has a wife (Katrin), the only joy in his life is his young daughter Klara. The girl and her father play a game in which they are the Empress and Emperor of a fairytale land called Portugallien, where dreams come true. (These scenes are staged with a touching innocence, with a child actress of some subtlety portraying the child Klara. In his charade as the Emperor, Jan swanks about in a ridiculous robe and crown.) After various misfortunes, Jan's farm fails and Klara (now an adult) goes off to Stockholm seeking employment. Soon, she sends money to her father - large amounts, at regular intervals - but she does not come home. Time passes. Missing his beloved daughter, Jan becomes depressed.
SPOILERS COMING. A rumour springs up in the farm community: a whispering campaign asserts that Klara is living as a politician's mistress. The rumour plausibly explains why Klara is able to send home so much money. When Jan hears this rumour, his mind snaps. Plunging into insanity, he deludes himself that he is genuinely the Emperor of Portugallien. Jan dresses up in his old playtime costume, and parades through the community as the 'emperor'... receiving scorn and contempt from his neighbours, whom he now believes are his 'subjects'. The film ends tragically.
Sjostrom (who later starred in Ingmar Bergman's 'Wild Strawberries') gives a virtuoso performance here. For most of the film, he is restrained and dignified. When his character goes insane and becomes the delusional emperor, Sjostrom pulls the stops out and abandons restraint ... but this is entirely appropriate to his characterisation. Holger Lowenadler is impressive as the villain, although his performance is slightly too hissable: he plays a landlord who seduces the adult Klara, but his characterisation is somewhat too obvious in its caddishness, so I had difficulty believing that Klara couldn't perceive his real intentions. Karl-Arne Holmsten is insipid as the local yokel who sincerely loves Klara.
I'll rate 'The Emperor of Portugallien' 7 points out of 10. The production values here are far inferior to MGM's efforts in 'The Tower of Lies' ... but this Swedish remake takes place in a plausible milieu, which simply isn't true of the silent version.
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