Directed by Victor Sjörström
Victor Sjörström; Edith Erastoff; John Ekman; Jenny Tschemichin-Larsson; Artur Rolén; Nils Ahrén; William Larsson
The Outlaw and His Wife (Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru) (1918)
Visually stunning, brilliantly acted and directed, The Outlaw and His Wife, Victor Sjöström’s ambitious film, tackles three fundamental themes: man versus man, man versus nature, and most importantly, love versus destiny. Sjöström’s fatalistic masterpiece is both beautiful and horrific, sometimes at the same time; at least once, in the same shot.
Kári (Victor Sjöström), a wanderer in nineteenth-century Iceland, finds work at the farm of the rich young widow Halla (Edith Erastoff). The two soon fall in love, but when Halla’s brother-in-law, the bailiff, Björn (William Larsson), reveals that Kári is really the escaped criminal Berg-Ejvind, Halla and Ejvind flee into the mountains, Halla abandoning her farm for her true love. Years pass and they are happy and content hiding in the mountainside with their young daughter and fellow outlaw, Arnes (John Ekman). But the Bailiff and his men stumble on their camp, and as the men fight, Halla, refusing to let anyone touch her daughter, instead kills her, tossing her from a precipice. Halla and Ejvind survive the fight and flee higher up the mountain. More years pass and they are starving as a snow storm rages around them. Exhausted, hungry and freezing, the two resort to blaming each other for their predicament. When Ejvind leaves to get more wood for the fire, he returns to find Halla passed out in the snow. Ejvind curls up next to Halla, and the harsh elements take their due.
Ruggedly handsome, Sjöström’s Ejvind is a stoic man with firm beliefs in wrong and right. In a flashback we learn that Ejvind was part of a family sufferingly near starvation. He goes to the parson to borrow food, but when he’s refused, Ejvind takes justice into his own hands and steals a lamb (unfortunately leaving behind his gloves, which incriminate him in the crime). Ejvind escapes from prison, finding happiness in Halla’s love, only to be pursued once again, by the unrelenting society’s (in the guise of the bailiff) insatiable appetite for Ejvind’s punishment; even if his punishment is unjust. It takes over five years for the bailiff and his men to find Ejvind, and when they do, they will stop at nothing to exact their “justice.” Escaping fate once again, years later, nature herself weighs in, demanding the ultimate penalty, but not before belittling the love between Halla and Ejvind. While nature’s verdict is final, love is victorious, too, with the reconciled lovers forever in each other’s arms.
While there’s no question that Ejvind broke the law, just or not, his punishment, both by society and at the hands of mother nature, is quite severe. But Halla is also severely punished, and her only crime is being with the man she loves. She actually gives up her wealth, and, rashly (and inexplicably, in my humble opinion), sacrifices her daughter; all to stay with her husband. But despite her sacrifices, Nature includes her in Ejvind’s punishment. In fact, like a condemned criminal walking towards his execution, Halla leaves the relative warmth and safety of their shelter, accepting, and welcoming Nature’s sentence.
As brilliant as The Outlaw and His Wife is, there are some inherent problems. As a director, Sjöström doesn’t handle the passage of time very well, relying entirely on inter-titles to indicate how many years have past. The first time this happens, when Ejvind and Halla flee to the mountains, the time passage makes sense and isn’t completely jarring (although the appearance of their little girl still comes as a surprise). The second time passage comes immediately after the fight with the Bailiff and his men. In the first place, it is never completely clear that Ejvind and Halla escape the melee, and we don’t find out what happened to their friend Arnes. More importantly, there is no reference to the sacrifice of the daughter. (Sjöström doesn’t provide enough motivation for Hanna to commit such a heinous act, and her character suffers because of it.) We don’t know if Ejvind actually saw what Halla did, and whether or not he condoned her actions. The tension of the situation simply dissolves into a title indicating another passage of time, and then we’re in their shelter with the storm raging. The juxtaposition of both of these climatic sequences without even a slight pause to reflect on what has happened is jarring and certainly belittles the sacrificing of the daughter.
Still, the enormous power of The Outlaw and His Wife lingers long after one views the film. Much of that power comes from Sjöström’s spectacular scenery. Much of the film was shot on location, and those locations are not only beautiful, they become part of the story. Waterfalls, lush lakes, and warm springs make up the virtual Eden in which Ejvind and Halla make their new home, and Sjöström incorporates these locations, making them integral to his story. Early in the second part, Ejvind holds his child as he walks out on the precipice, tossing off a great rock. Filmed from below, we see the beautiful silhouettes of the two, while also gaining an appreciation for exactly how high up they are. We learn that stunning sequence was actually foreshadowing the child’s sacrifice. During the raging snow storm, Sjöström keeps the camera close, accenting the claustrophobic situation the two are in and elevating their childish bickering to something more ominous. Yet, throughout their argument, Sjöström shifts the mood from dread to acceptance, particularly on Halla’s part. We are not surprised when she leaves the shelter; she’s simply fulfilling her destiny, one that Ejvind, at first reluctantly, but then stoically, shares. Sjöström’s final shot of the shelter’s fire going out and then back to the bodies of Halla and Ejvind, the two entwined, is as harrowing as it is beautiful.
The Outlaw and His Wife was available on laserdisc as part of Kino on Video’s Silent Classics series distributed by Image Entertainment. The tinted print, a 1986 restoration by Bengt Forslund, working with the Swedish Film Institute, is in fair condition, with a soft image and showing plenty of wear. Interiors are often quite dark, making it difficult to see details, but over all the picture is quite nice, considering the rarity of the film. Often the lengthy inter-titles fly by, and because they relate pertinent information, one must rewind the disc to read them again. The orchestral score by Torbjörn Iwan Lundqvist works very nicely with the film, particularly during the intimate moments between Ejvind and Halla.
Kino has also recently released The Outlaw and His Wife on DVD. The print appears to be the same as the laserdisc, however there is more detail and some of the darker sequences are lighter. The inter-titles were re-done (I’m unsure, but I think some were even re-written), but the lengthy ones still fly by too fast, so keep the pause button ready. The score is the same. Along with the film, there is the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström, directed by Gösta Werner.
Kevin M. Wentink