100-year challenge: The Outlaw and His Wife (Sweden, 1918) directed by victor sjostrom


in the spirit of the once rampant 10-year-challenge meme, i was inspired to look back at the films i was watching ten years ago (The Painted Veil (2006), Die Tur  (2009), Benjamin Button (2008) etc)--then things very quickly escalated into seeing how far back into cinematic history i could tolerate without risking a certain intro-to-cinema102 snobbery. to that extent, The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) was the most satisfying discovery.

every human story is indeed a story about the family, and as such it remains the same unchanging story told over and over with a different cast playing the same characters. wim wenders’ Wings of Desire (1983) is a profound example of taking the longest arc possible—that of eternal and silent angels roaming the streets of berlin—to reach the conclusion of what matters the most on the human scale, in Damiel’s words: ‘meine mutter, mein vater, meine frau, meine kind…’

in the case of The Outlaw and His Wife, the conclusion of that long arc is the plot’s starting point—the unlikely union of two people, Halla (edith eastoff) and Kari (victor sjöstrom) who are both ripe and ready for the rustic and simple joy of family life. Kari is running away from a petty but necessary crime of past and Halla is a widow heartily forbearing the responsibility of a farm whilst keeping at bay the clumsy and initially sincere advances of her garrulous brother-in-law. their attraction is obvious and spontaneous, less than the length of a glance, and their union is played out against the backdrop of the barely arable yet storied landscape of northern sweden. simplicity has not been swapped for nuanced realism as the most vivid colours of emotion are underlined in a bleak and direct understatedness—when Kari’s friend confesses a long unrewarded admiration, for example, he could not have been less spirited:

Once when you were ill, I gave you some green leaves that had come out of the snow. Then you gave me a kiss. “” Arnes

the vibe throughout was reminiscent of pre-code hollywood with it’s brash and unblinking severities (the tossing an infant to its death to evade capture remains an incomprehensible feature) or its depiction of indomitable and independent female characters like that of Halla, who remained obstinate in joy and in despair alike. there is also the glaring lack of regulation on working conditions: edith eastoff was pregnant throughout the filming of what was a very physical role in rough and inhospitable terrain (thankfully the child she gave birth to, guje lagerwall, lived a long and healthy life—passing away earlier this month, five days away from her 101st birthday!).

despite its laudable elemental simplicity, the film also has its share of the realism inherent in most silent films. it is a realism created by the distance between the dialogue and the narrative. perhaps only half of the dialogue makes it unto a title card, so there is this feeling of distance between the life these characters inhabit and the details conveyed to us. that separation provides an opportunity for two aspects of cinema that is spellbinding when successfully executed: the first is the space to gawk, by which i mean the opportunity to let your eyes drift through a scene and absorb the non-verbal cues which make up most of communication. the second is music. this film is truly a musical, inasmuch as all of its 75 minutes are accompanied by instrumental/orchestral music. the delay between dialogue and narrative allows for music to be the real-time indicator of emotional nuances.

that this film was made two decades from the rise of shirley temple, for example, is perhaps a reminder that the Hays Code was, among other things, an infantilization of the cinematic art, rather than cinema in it’s childhood. the maturity and wide-eyed realism of The Outlaw and his Wife was a bit of a shock. it’s cinema made confidently for the adults in the room, with the expectation that a good helping of informed imagination is needed to fill in the blanks. this maturity still exists today in the aesthetic of scandinavian cinema. i felt that same sentiment when i first saw ingmar bergman’s Summer with Monica (1953), the feeling that this is a film that has leapt ahead of it’s time whilst everyone else was afraid of full-frontal nudity, independent female characters etc. in fact much of Monica is seemingly inspired by Outlaw or at least falls naturally in it lineage; the wintry conditions that accompany the tragic end of Halla and Kari’s love-on-the-rocks is the same that is employed to indicate the end of the flowery youth and feral sensuality of harriet anderson’s Monica.

there is usually for me a mix of intrigue and suspicion after watching a film like Outlaw; the intrigue of imagining what the cinema of the year 3019 would look like if ours is near incomparable to that of 1918. and suspicion in regards to what coarse and rustic sensuality we lose if we remain in such an indiscriminate hurry to shed all our animal and morbid sensibilities. the timelessness of Outlaw is found in it’s unvarnished presentation of certain ineluctable animal instincts: jealousy, the threat of violence, the condolence of friendship, the terrifying sensuality of attraction, the inescapable gravity of the herd-instinct, and the inevitable banality of even the most impassioned romance.

in summa summarum, i give The Outlaw and His Wife 4.34 stolen bushels of wool out of 6 sheep stolen whole, of course.