Thanks to its recent restoration and its release on disc by the Criterion Collection, The Phantom Carriage is probably the best-known film directed by Victor Sjöström among today’s film-lovers. In his heyday, though, the man who was known in the United States as Victor Seastrom was most renowned for his successful Hollywood melodramas. In particular, the trio of He Who Gets Slapped [1924], The Scarlet Letter [1926], and The Wind [1928] established Sjöström/Seastrom as one of the most accomplished visual and dramatic stylists of the silent screen, an important catalyst in the creative explosion with which that medium met its end.

Lon Cheney and Norma Shearer in 'He Who Gets Slapped'

Lon Cheney and Norma Shearer in 'He Who Gets Slapped'

Although he stayed behind the camera in the US, Sjöström’s talent, as evidenced by his performance as David Holm in The Phantom Carriage, wasn’t limited to his command of film form. Before his Hollywood period, Sjöström had acted in several of the films he also directed, including The Outlaw and His Wife [1917], available today on the streaming service FilmStruck. And cinephiles from a generation or two ago would recognize Sjöström chiefly as an actor, from his role as the central character in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Wild Strawberries [1957]—a film that also appears on a FilmStruck search for “Sjöström.”

As an actor, Sjöström often uses his hard features to belie his characters’ inner vulnerability. The best moments in his acting come when unexpected tenderness, regret, or pain burst through the surface of his strong, often scruffy face. And in the films he directed himself, the naturalistic pathos of his acting balances his use of visual symbols, subjective vision, symmetrical frame compositions. Both in front of and behind the camera, as the following four films show, Sjöström was a true master.

The Outlaw and His Wife [Victor Sjöström, 1917]

In this film, Sjöstöm plays an Icelandic man known as Kári who has settled in as a worker at a farm operated by the widow Hella [Edith Erastoff]. It soon comes to light, however, that Kári is actually an escaped convict named Berg-Ejvind, and he is being pursued by the spiteful sheriff who first arrested him for food theft. Hella has fallen in love with Ejvind, and even given his mendacity and spotted past, elects to give up her farm and follow him into hiding in the mountains. Hella and Ejvind live peacefully in Iceland’s chilly but verdant wilderness until an old acquaintance happens across them in the woods, spelling danger for their new family.

Given the period in which it was made, The Outlaw and His Wife exhibits a stunning grasp of film form and dramaturgy. At a time when most films were staged almost exclusively frontally, Sjöström uses complex dramatic framings to emphasize character relations or to set up dramatic developments. Composition within the frame is also used to create symbolic imagery: the film’s most striking image is that of Ejvind, the outcast, standing alone on a precarious precipice. Despite the film’s use of figurative imagery, the acting is markedly naturalistic, both on the part of Sjöström and of his co-stars [well, everyone except the villainous sheriff]. The film is also about a theme that Sjöström will return to throughout the 1920s: ostracization and exclusion, whether imposed or self-inflicted.

Exile in idyllic Iceland

Exile in idyllic Iceland

He Who Gets Slapped [Victor Sjöström, 1924]

Sjöström’s best-remembered Hollywood movie holds up particularly well in our age, in which it seems everyone professes a fear of clowns. Here, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Cheney, plays a brilliant scientist who, when his wealthy patron steals his fiance and his ideas, finds a second career as a clown whose schtick is that he allows anyone to slap him. The circus turns out to not quite be the refuge of narcissistic masochism he desires, however, and soon he’s wrapped up in drama both new and old. By making himself a clown, Cheney’s character thinks he can sit outside the worries of the world as it spins on around him, but the illusions of the Big Ring only mask, not replace, the real world.

Excellent circus films, for whatever reason, abound in the 1920s and 30s [see: Variety [1925], The Circus [1927], The Man Who Laughs [1928], Freaks [1932]], but He Who Gets Slapped might be the pinnacle of this strange subgenre. Cheney’s unfortunate clown draws the audience into his envelope of self-pity, up to the point that, with a grotesque twist, he reveals himself as monstrous and vengeful. Played differently, the film could be a proto-horror movie in the manner of Cheney’s later The Phantom of the Opera [1925], but in Sjöström’s hands it becomes a sympathetic, if sometimes playful, parable about pain, shame, and self-isolation.

The Wind [Victor Sjöström, 1928]

You might describe as a “Woman’s Western,” as it combines the nascent conventions of what would come to be called the “Woman’s Film” by Hollywood studios with the settings and character archetypes of a Western. The film opens as Letty Mason [the legendary Lillian Gish] is on her way via railroad from Virginia to Sweetwater, Texas. She’s moving to Texas to join her cousin, who is one of a handful of ranch owners in the area. Driven out by her cousin’s jealous wife, Letty is forced into a marriage she’s not sure she wants. And meanwhile, that wind … The wind in rural Texas is unceasing, unrelenting. It whips through one’s clothings, hurls buckets of dust through the window, blows open doors and peels apart ramshackle ranch houses. 

a wild horse bucks across the sky as the dreaded “norther” approaches

a wild horse bucks across the sky as the dreaded “norther” approaches

The inescapable, intractable wind frightens Letty, who imagines she sees the dreaded “norther” winds approaching as a bucking white horse in the sky. The wild horse that then appears superimposed against a cloudy backdrop at various parts of the film is mesmerizing, at once beautiful and haunting. The wind, and the horse that Letty hallucinates as its manifestation, is a symbol for the fear that Letty has of life outside of the civilized East Coast, but also the wildness within her. Beyond using it as a metaphor for Letty’s emotional turmoil, Sjöström finds in the wind a series of uniquely cinematic effects, as an invisible force that seems to bring still landscapes to life, that manifests apparitional figures in the distance—that is pure movement. The Wind is a strange, evocative melodrama, a fine cap to Sjöström’s time in Hollywood.

Wild Strawberries [Ingmar Bergman, 1957]

With its nested narratives and flights of visual fancy, Wild Strawberries is a film not totally unlike The Phantom Carriage, and director Ingmar Bergman often cited the earlier movie as his inspiration for becoming a filmmaker. Bergman—undoubtedly the most well-known Swedish film director and high in the running for greatest film artist of all time—considered Sjöström not only an influence, but a father figure. The younger Swede worked under the silent master on the former’s first film, Crisis [1946]. By casting his hero in this contemplation on memory, imagination, and mortality, Bergman was tapping into an aspect of Sjöström-the-actor most memorably depicted in The Phantom Carriage.

Wild Strawberries, a portrait of an old man’s reflection at the end of his life, came out just two years before the end of Sjöström’s own life in early 1960, and was the actor-director’s final role. For the moment, it stands as his most lasting contribution to our collective cinematic memory, if only because so many of his other films have been difficult to get ahold of as VHS ceded ground to discs and digital formats. 

Among serious cinephiles, Sjöström’s silent classics are far from forgotten, but they can be damned difficult to find: only He Who Gets Slapped has gotten a release on disc, and that DVD isn’t exactly in wide circulation. If you don’t happen to catch them on TCM, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind must either be hunted down on VHS or via sometimes dubious sources online. The Outlaw and His Wife is easy enough to find alongside Wild Strawberries and The Phantom Carriage on FilmStruck, but Janus Film hasn’t given it the full-release treatment. Posted on the company’s streaming site without an accompanying score, it can be something of a slog, even if you’re into silent film. Here’s hoping that each of these films gets the restoration and wide release they deserve.