Nationality: Swedish/Russian (became citizen of Sweden, 1921). Born: Mosche Stiller in Helsinki, Finland, 17 July 1883. Career: Actor in Finland, from 1899; moved to Sweden to avoid Russian military draft, worked as actor in Sweden, from 1904; manager of avant-garde theatre Lilla Teatern, Stockholm, 1911; hired as film director (also writer and actor) for newly formed Svenska Biograf
film studio, Stockholm, 1912; began collaboration with Greta Gustafsson (Greta Garbo), 1923; moved to Hollywood under contract to MGM, 1925; fired by MGM before completing a film, hired by Erich Pommer at Paramount to direct Hotel Imperial, then returned to Sweden, 1927. Died: 8 November 1928.
Films as Director:
Mor och dotter (Mother and Daughter) (+ sc, role as Count Raoul de Saligny); När svärmor regerar (When the Mother-in-Law Reigns) (+ sc, role as the pastor); Vampyren (Vampire) (+ sc); Barnet (The Child); De svarta makerna (The Black Masks) (+ co-sc); Den tryanniske fästmannen (The Tyrannical Fiancée) (+ sc, role as Elias Petterson)
När kärleken dödar (When Love Kills) (+ co-sc); Närlarmhlockan ljuder (When the Alarm Bell Rings); Denokända (The Unknown Woman) (+ sc); Bröderna (Brothers) (+ co-sc); Den moderna suffragetten (The Suffragette) (+ sc); Pålivets ödesväger (The Smugglers); Mannekägen (The Model) (+ sc); För sin kärleks skull (The Stockbroker) (+ sc); Gränsfolken (The Border Feud); Livets konflikter (Conflicts of Life) (+ sc); Kammarjunkaren (Gentleman ofthe Room) (+ sc)
Lekkamraterna (The Playmates) (+ sc); Stormfågeln (TheStormy Petrel); Det röda tornet (The Master) (+ co-sc); Skottet (The Shot); När konstnärer älska (When ArtistsLove)
Hans hustrus förflutna (His Wife's Past); Hämnaren (TheAvenger); Madame de Thèbes (The Son of Destiny); Mästertjuven (The Son of Fate); Hans bröllopsnatt (HisWedding Night); Minlotsen (The Mine Pilot); Dolken (TheDagger) (+ co-sc); Lyckonälen (The Motorcar Apaches) (+ co-sc)
Balettprimadonnan (Anjuta, the Dancer); Kärlek ochjournalistik (Love and Journalism); Kampen om hans hjärta (The Struggle for His Heart); Vingarne (The Wings) (+ co-sc)
Thomas Graals bästa film (Thomas Graal's Best Picture); Alexander den Store (Alexander the Great) (+ sc)
Thomas Graals bästa barn (Thomas Graal's First Child) (+ co-sc); Sången om den eldröda blomman (Song of theScarlet Flower, The Flame of Life)
Fiskebyn (The Fishing Village); Herr Arnes Pengar (SirArne's Treasure) (+ co-sc)
Erotikon (Bonds That Chafe) (+ co-sc); Johan (+ sc)
De Landsflyktige (The Exiles) (+ co-sc)
Gunnar Hedes saga (Gunnar Hede's Saga, The Old Mansion) (+ sc)
Gösta Berlings saga (The Story of Gösta Berling; The Atonement of Gösta Berling) (+ co-sc)
The Temptress (finished by Fred Niblo) (+ sc)
Hotel Imperial (+ co-sc); The Woman on Trial; Barbed Wire (finished by Rowland Lee) (+ sc)
The Street of Sin (finished by Ludvig Berger) (+ sc)
On STILLER: books—
Idestam-Almquist, Bengt, Den Svenska Filmens Drama: Sjöströmoch Stiller, Stockholm, 1938.
Hardy, Forsyth, Scandinavian Film, London, 1951.
Waldekranz, Rune, Swedish Cinema, Stockholm, 1959.
Lauritzen, Einar, Swedish Film, New York, 1962.
Cowie, Peter, Swedish Cinema, London, 1966.
Pensel, Hans, Seastrom and Stiller in Hollywood, New York, 1969.
Werner, Gösta, Mauritz Stiller och hans filmer, Stockholm, 1969.
Petrie, Graham, Hollywood Destinies: European Directors in Hollywood 1922–31, London, 1985.
Werner, Gösta, Mauritz Stiller: ett livsöde, Stockholm, 1991.
On STILLER: articles—
Idestam-Almquist, Bengt, "Stiller, a Pioneer of the Cinema," in Biografbladet (Stockholm), Fall 1950.
Idestam-Almquist, Bengt, "The Man Who Found Garbo," in Filmsand Filming (London), August 1956.
Sjöström, Victor, "As I Remember Him," in Film Comment (New York), Summer 1970.
Wood, Robin, "Essays on the Swedish Cinema (Part 2)," in Lumiere (Melbourne), April/May 1974.
Gillett, John, "Swedish Retrospect," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1974.
Robertson, J., "Mauritz Stiller," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1977.
Beylie, Claude, and M. Martin, "Sjöström, Stiller et l'Amérique," in Ecran (Paris), September 1978.
Sopocy, M., "Oltre il realisimo. 'Griffithiana'," in Quarterly Reviewof Film Studies (New York), September 1986.
Sopocy, M., "Beyond Realism: Reconstructing some Lost Stiller Films at the Library of Congress," in Quarterly Review of Filmand Video (Reading, UK), vol. 11, no. 2, August 1989.
Czako, A., "Egy kozmopolita sved filmkolto: Mauritz Stiller," in Filmkultura (Budapest), vol. 29, no. 9, April 1993.
* * *
Like the other two distinguished pioneers of the early Swedish cinema, Sjöström and Sjöberg, Mauritz Stiller had an essentially theatrical background. But it must be remembered that he was reared in Finland of Russian-Jewish stock, did not immigrate to Sweden until he was 27, and remained there only 15 years before going to Hollywood. He responded relatively late to the Swedish cultural tradition, so heavily influenced by the country's extreme northern climate and landscape, and by the fatalistic, puritanical literary and dramatic aura exerted most notably by the Swedish dramatist Strindberg and the Nobel prize-winning novelist Selma Lagerlöf. The latter's works—Herr Arne's Treasure, Gunnar Hede's Saga, and Gösta Berlings Saga—were inspired by tradition and legend, and were all to be adapted by Stiller for the silent screen.
After establishing himself as a talented stage actor, Stiller's work on film began in 1912. He immediately proved to be a meticulous craftsman, with a strong visual instinct and a polished sense of timing and rhythm. His early work showed how much he had learned technically from the considerable number of D.W. Griffith's short narrative films shown in Sweden. For example, The Black Masks, made in 1912, is noted by Forsyth Hardy as having, "over a hundred scenes, a constantly changing combination of interiors and exteriors, close-ups and panoramic shots." In 1913 Stiller even made a film based on the activities of Mrs. Pankhurst called Den moderna suffragetten, reflecting his reputation in the theater for avant-garde subjects.
Stiller also proved adept at comedy, as his films Love and Journalism, Thomas Graal's Best Film—one of the earliest films about filmmaking—and Thomas Graal's First Child reveal, with their skirmishing and coquetry that characterize the relationship of the sexes. Stiller insisted, however, on restraint in acting style; he was an autocratic perfectionist, and Emil Jannings, Germany's leading actor, termed him "the Stanislavski of the cinema." The second of these films had a complex structure, full of flashbacks and daydreams; the director Victor Sjöström starred in all three, as well as in other of Stiller's films. In some of his earliest efforts, Stiller made appearances himself.
The climax to Stiller's career in the production of elegant and graceful comedies of sex manners was Erotikon; though better known, because of its alluring title, than its predecessors, it is somewhat less accomplished. Elaborately staged and full of sexual by-play—the wife of a preoccupied professor has two lovers in hot pursuit, a young sculptor and an elderly baron—it includes a specially commissioned ballet performed by the opera in Stockholm. These sophisticated silent films rank alongside the early comedies of Lubitsch, whose work in this genre in Germany in fact succeeded them. Lubitsch readily acknowledged his debt to Stiller.
Again like Lubitsch (with whose career Stiller's can best be compared at this stage), Stiller also worked on epic-style, historical subjects. He took over the adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf's novel Sir Arne's Treasure from Sjöström, its original director. This was essentially an eighteenth-century story of escape and pursuit—three Scottish mercenaries in the service of King John III are imprisoned for conspiracy. They abscond in the depths of winter, undertaking a desperate journey overland to flee the country. In the process they become increasingly violent and menacing until they come upon Arne's mansion. They steal his treasure, burn his house, and slaughter its inhabitants except for an orphan girl. The orphan Elsalill, who survives the massacre, is a haunted figure half-attracted to the leader of the Scottish renegades. But she eventually betrays him and dies in the final confrontation in which the Scots are recaptured. The long, snake-like column of black-robed women moving over the icy waste in the girl's funeral procession is Stiller's concluding panoramic scene; one of the best-known spectacular shots in early cinema, it still appears in most history books. The film illustrates grandly the response of the early Swedish filmmakers to the menacing magnificence of the northern winter landscape.
After completing Erotikon Stiller moved on to Johan, a dark and satiric study of the triangular relationship of husband, wife, and the visitant, stranger-lover. Set in the desolate expanse of the countryside, the film includes a climax worthy of Griffith as the guilty couple, chased by the husband, ride the rapids in a small boat. Stiller then crowned his career in Sweden with two further adaptations of Lagerlöf's work: Gunnar Hedes Saga and Gösta Berlings Saga. In the former—in every way an outstanding film of its period in its immixture of dream and actuality—the hero, the violinist Nils (Einar Hansson), is inspired to emulate his father, who made a fortune by driving a vast herd of reindeer south from the Arctic circle. Nils's adventure in realizing this dream only leads to severe injury resulting in amnesia; back home in the forests of the south he experiences hallucinations from which the girl who loves him finally liberates him. The film's duality is striking: the realism of the trek with the reindeer, which involved panoramic shots of the great herds and brilliant tracking shots of the catastrophic stampede which leads to Nils's accident, is in marked contrast to the twilit world of his hallucinations.
Gösta Berling's Saga, on the other hand, though famous for its revelation of the star quality of the young drama student, Greta Garbo, and its melodramatic story of the defrocked priest (Lars Hanson) fatally in love with Garbo's Italian girl, is clumsy in structure compared with Gunnar Hede's Saga, and was later destructively cut for export to half its original length of four hours.
Stiller travelled in 1925 to America at the invitation of Louis B. Mayer of MGM on the strength of his reputation as a sophisticated European director, but mostly (it would seem) because he was Garbo's Svengali-like and obsessive mentor. He very soon fell out with Mayer, who endured him because he wanted Garbo as a contract player. All but mesmerized by Stiller, Garbo insisted that he direct her in The Temptress; the inevitable difficulties arose and he was withdrawn from the film.
Stiller's best film in America was made at Paramount. Hotel Imperial, which starred Pola Negri, concerned a wartime love affair between a hotel servant and an Austrian officer and was notable for its spectacular, composite hotel set over which the camera hung suspended from an overhead rail. After finishing a second film with Negri, The Woman on Trial, Stiller never managed to complete another film; the respiratory illness that was undermining his health forced him to part from Garbo and return to Sweden, where he died in 1928 at the age of 45.