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Yesterday, we announced that we’ll soon release the groundbreaking silent film The Phantom Carriage, directed by the legendary Swedish director Victor Sjöström. Among the claims to fame of this stirring ghost story is Ingmar Bergman’s having credited it with inspiring him to make films. Bergman’s debt to The Phantom Carriage is apparent not only in the borrowed ghoulish grim reaper imagery in The Seventh Seal but also in the intimacy of his portrayal of desperate characters throughout his career. And Bergman wasn’t only a devoted fan of Sjöström’s—he was his protégé. They met when Svensk Filmindustri brought on Swedish cinema’s elder statesman to supervise Bergman’s first production, 1946’s Crisis. From that point on, as he often said, Bergman considered Sjöström a true mentor and father figure.
Sjöström’s immortalization on film by Bergman in Wild Strawberries is well known. But the young director first cast Sjöström as an actor in 1949’s not as widely seen To Joy. In this arresting domestic drama, available in our first Eclipse series, Early Bergman, Bergman details the tragic dissolution of the marriage of Stig, a violinist paralyzed by feelings of his own inadequacy, and Marta, a fellow musician whose patience with his neuroses lasts only so long. Sjöström, sixty-nine at the time, plays the kind but no-nonsense orchestra conductor who provides spiritual as well as artistic guidance for Stig. The making of To Joy, happening as it did right after Bergman’s second marriage fell apart, was a profoundly personal artistic endeavor for Bergman, and his identification with the self-loathing protagonist is clear. In light of this, his casting of Sjöström in this role can be read as an expression of his deep respect.
The following scene from To Joy, in which Stig nearly breaks down while playing a solo during a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, is at once an emotional tribute to the master conductor Sjöström, a virtuoso example of Bergman’s way with music on film (see The Magic Flute for more tuneful evidence), and a classically Bergmanesque psychological portrait. It’s also stunningly photographed by the brilliant Gunnar Fischer, who died this week at 100.