My review of Kino’s DVD of Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and his Wife is now up on Turner Classic Movies online. Sjöström is one of the godfathers of Swedish cinema – in my opinion, the greatest of them – and this is the film that put him on the international map. Sjöström is on both sides of the camera here, playing an escaped convict (imprisoned for stealing to save his starving family) who falls in love with a young widow and then retreats to the mountains when his identity is revealed.
Set in 19th century Iceland and shot against the dramatic landscape of Mount Nuolja in Northern Sweden by Julius Jaenzen (with some exteriors shot in Iceland itself), Sjöström creates images both beautiful and elemental. Kari’s flashback shows his life on a plateau surrounded by steaming hot springs and geysers, and their mountain home is built near a cliff with a breathtaking view. But for all its beauty, the elemental power and spiritual purity of the natural world is also unforgiving. As Kari grimly observes, “No man can escape is fate,” and their idyll is invaded by the jealousy and lust of a fellow outlaw, by the vengeful bailiff’s posse, by the elements themselves as they retreat farther into the inhospitable peaks of the icy mountains. The snows that ultimately claim the lovers have an elemental force that Sjöström recalls years later in the sands of The Wind. “No filmmaker before Sjöström integrated landscape so fundamentally into his work or conceived of nature as a mystical as well as a physical force in terms of film language,” wrote Swedish cinema authority Peter Cowie in 1970.
In the film’s most startling and devastating scene, a shocking act of desperation from Halla becomes is both a terrible act of mercy and a pagan sacrifice to the Gods of the mountain. It’s as if these free spirits must be punished for their defiance of social convention, or at least pay for their fleeting happiness. Yet even at their most miserable they are bonded in love and they die as they lived.
Read the complete review here.