Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Victor Sjöstrom | The Scarlet Letter

undoing the past
by Douglas Messerli
Frances Marion (writer and titles, based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne), Victor Sjöstrom (director) The Scarlet Letter / 1926


Swedish director Victor Sjöstrom’s film adaptation of  Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, made during the director’s short “Hollywood” period, is surely one of his best films, and perhaps the most powerful performance ever of its central actor, Lillian Gish. By comparison to this silent work, Gish’s work in the 1930 talkie I watched immediately after viewing this film on TCM, One Romantic Night, seemed somewhat bland and unexpressive. Not so in The Scarlet Letter in which Gish, quite literally, lets her beautiful hair down several times, particularly early in the film when she goes rushing into the woods after her escaped bird. This series of events is beautifully filmed by Sjöstrom and his cinematographer Hendrik Sartov, as his camera fluidly tracks the beautiful young woman dressed all in white—as opposed to the church-going Puritans, clad mostly in black—saying almost everything that needs to be said about this oppressive culture, where even allowing a bird to sing on the Sabbath, let alone running and chasing after it, is deeply forbidden—as if joy and beauty were an anathema to God.

      In the closed and claustrophobic world of Sjöstrom’s Boston, nothing can be hidden from the sight of nosy and viciously gossiping neighbors such as Mistress Hibbins (Marcelle Corday); and punishment for the young steamstress’ transgressions immediately follows, ordered by the elders. It is not enough that she be brought before the kinder church minister, The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (played by the striking Swedish actor Lars Hanson) to be scolded before the entire community, but the now seemingly innocent act puts Hester Prynne in the pillories for her “crime.” As Dimmesdale tenderly releases her from her bodily imprisonment, he is struck by her beauty, which follows, soon after, with a quite steamy love scene, again played in the woods.

     Unlike in Hawthorne’s tale, accordingly, where we only gradually discover the intense sexual relationship between the minister and Hester, here everything is established from the beginning. And the director makes clear from the very first scenes that the hugs and touches between these two beautiful beings is against not only community norms but law, as soon after, we observe the comical wooing of the work’s dunce-like Master Giles of a young woman wherein they are forced to speak to one another over a table through a long tube-like device that keeps them worlds apart. A quick, stolen goodbye kiss, ends in Giles being ousted not only from the house but from his would-be lover’s life.

      In Hawthorne the gradual discovery of the relationship between Dimmesdale and Hester reiterates his and the community’s hypocrisy. But here (in reality, Hanson speaking in Swedish, Gish in English) we are presented with the background events of Dimmesdale’s later “treason,” which create a far deeper sense of sympathy for both the minister and Hester. Here we see both her own flirtations and demurrals as well as the powerful forces of love emanating from the Reverend. As Hester states the obvious, they live in a world that is “afraid of love,” a community terrorized by even the vision of women’s undergarments.

     If that leads us to more fully sympathize equally with Dimmesdale, the director further allows us feel the extreme tensions that the two feel even before Hester’s adultery is revealed through the birth of young daughter, Pearl. Dimmesdale desperately desires to marry this woman—which would have saved their lives—but it is Hester who is most responsible for the situation, not through her sexual responses, but through her lies, through the fact that she has not revealed her marriage to Roger Chillingworth until Dimmesdale is about to leave the country on a mission to the English King. Hester’s crime and punishment, accordingly, is not correctly perceived by the vengeful and cruel community: hers is not a crime passion or wonton sexuality, as much as it is that she, just like most in this community, is unable to face the truth, fearful of losing what she has attained—in her case, the love of Dimmesdale. In short, although she is publically humiliated for her aberrant behavior, she is, in fact, one of them, and like them, desperate to hide the truth.


     This is particularly obvious in this film when Dimmesdale, returning from his voyage, discovers her plight. While he is determined to confess all, she insists that he continue to keep it secret, to serve the community rather than reveal to that society that he and they are all equally sinners. It is this internalization of reality that ultimately dooms not only both lovers, Dimmesdale and Hester, but also the community at large. Even Master Giles’ determined revenge on Mistress Hibbins for her insufferable gossip, is based on a lie, as he, pretending to be her, play-acts in a scene of imaginary gossip against town leaders who accidently (purposely to him) overhear her words. The result is dreadful series of dunkings into a nearby pond.

     The lies indeed insinuate themselves into the lives of all, but particularly into the heart of this more appealing Dimmesdale, who, after saving Pearl from being taken from Hester by baptizing his daughter (itself, in this society, surely a sacrilegious act) spends much of the rest of the film with hand over heart, as he wastes away, daily retreating from living.

     Sjöstrom doubles the couple’s torture by bringing back Hester’s missing husband, Chillingworth, who, as a doctor saves Pearl’s life, but as a husband determines to revenge his wife (and, more indirectly than in Hawthorne’s work, Dimmesdale) by simply reappearing at auspicious moments. If the letter A she is forced to wear to the end of her life might remind her of her supposed sin, the more frightening punishment is Chillingworth’s constant reminder of his knowledge about the truth of the events.

     For a brief moment, these two tortured beings attempt to imagine some way out of their assigned fate through an escape to Spain where they may begin again, where they may free themselves from their tortured past—brilliantly symbolized in the film by Hester’s temporary removal of her A from her dress. But we have already perceived that the A signifying their past actions will be forever emblazoned upon their memories as we watch the young Pearl draw the same figure in the sand, as if beginning her studies of the alphabet. And Chillingworth’s presence simply reasserts that fact.

    It is Chillingworth’s presence, finally, that forces Dimmesdale to make a public confession about his involvement, revealing, in his personal anguish, that the same letter attached to Hester’s dress has been branded by iron upon his chest. Whereas Hawthorne may wonder if this was miraculous event wrought by the hand of God, in Sjöstrom’s far more corporeal rendering of the tale we have no question that the A upon the minister’s chest is a self-inflicted punishment for his own lack of moral daring. Yet again the Swedish director fully redeems Dimmesdale through the man’s confession, which itself, temporarily at least, saves his community by revealing the truth, that all men are sinners, that the mud they sling upon Hester and Pearl is that in which they themselves also walk.

    If the film version differs, quite radically at times, from the beloved fiction, it still works as an adaptation that raises most of Hawthorne’s themes while presenting the work’s heroes in more humane terms. And upon Dimmesdale’s death, in our empathy, we are quite ready to forgive his long silence. This silent film, after all, has audibly asserted what was in his heart.

Los Angeles, October 15, 2013

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