MORÆNEN (DK 1924)
(The House of Shadows)
Directed by Anders Wilhelm Sandberg
Music by Stephen Horne & Elizabeth-Jane Baldry
In a dark and desolate part of northern Norway, the all-powerful local magnate is the harsh and unforgiving Thor Brekanæs. In a prologue, he learns that his wife has sought solace in the arms of another and that her son Vasil is not his, unlike the child she now bears. As soon as this child is born, he throws her out and urges her to kill herself, which she does. Twenty-five years later, Brekanæs still broods over his shame. The second son, Aslak, is an imbecile, cared for by Brekanæs’s young god-daughter Thora. Brekanæs has ordered her engagement to his protégé Swein, the son of a poor tenant farmer whom he has taken under his wing. Vasil returns, having dropped out of law school to become a poet. He and Thora have long been attracted to each other, and Vasil calls off the engagement. Brekanæs is enraged at the defiance of the bastard he has never accepted or cared for, but before he can act against Vasil, the old man is murdered, his head crushed with a rock in the desolate moraine valley where he goes to scream his rage. Vasil is immediately suspected of having slain the unforgiving patriarch.
Among the films made in the early 1920s by the Nordisk company in Denmark, only a small number emphasized their “Nordicness”. The wild, mountainous setting of Morænen (British title: The House of Shadows) makes it an important exception, but it is of course set in northern Norway, not Denmark, and thus lacks the national frame found in films from the other Nordic countries. Although it deals with inheritance and intergenerational conflict, a common theme of Nordic rural dramas, it is also different because it does not have any literary prestige attached; it is an original screenplay, written by the prolific Laurids Skands (1885-1934), who was a professional writer of film scripts rather than an established novelist or playwright. Skands had collaborated with the director A. W. Sandberg (1887-1938) on a number of films, including the first three of Nordisk’s four Dickens films. Sandberg was very proud of his work on Morænen, which was hailed by the Danish press as one of the pinnacles of Danish film art (an estimation which now seems excessive), but the director’s promotion of his own efforts appears to have been the cause of a permanent rupture with Skands, his long-time collaborator.
Comparable films from the neighbouring countries, where the Nordic landscape plays an important role, tend to present it with pride – infused with grandeur, vitality, and national character; but Morænen presents it as a bleak, dismal wasteland that oppresses the souls of its inhabitants. Only in “the lands of the sun” – Italy, presumably – can love, art, and the human spirit flourish. The intertitles repeatedly invoke the joyless and stony character of the sunless northern lands where the film is set, and the mise-en-scène supports this. Although Sandberg and his crew travelled to Norway to shoot the exteriors on location, much of the film takes place indoors, the dark timbers and small, often off-screen windows contributing to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Contemporary publicity claimed that the Brekanæs home was based on a real Norwegian house, carefully measured and copied by Nordisk’s brilliant set designer Carlo Jacobsen; but the house we see in the film, particularly the large central hall with its grand, steep staircase rising into the gloom, seems remarkably gothic in comparison with the low-ceilinged dwellings in other Nordic films. With its patriarchal oppression and murder-mystery plot, Morænen has a strongly melodramatic feel to it, and a piece of music does play a central role: it calms a madman, brings back redemptive memories of a long-lost mother, and resolves the plot. The piece is not specified in the film, but a list of the musical selections accompanying the film at the première survives, and it is likely that the piece used was the “Berceuse” (1904) of the Finnish composer Armas Järnefelt, who wrote the original score for Mauritz Stiller’s masterpiece Sången om den eldröda blomman/Song of the Scarlet Flower (1919).
The print was made by the Danish Film Museum in 1959 from the original negative, with new titles following the original title lists from Nordisk.
Magnus Rosborn, Casper Tybjerg
(Programme note first published in the Giornate del Cinema Muto catalogue 2017)
MORÆNEN (DK 1924)
(The House of Shadows)
dir: Anders Wilhelm Sandberg
scen: Laurids Skands.
photog: Louis Larsen, Chresten Jørgensen.
scg/des: Carlo Jacobsen.
cast: Peter Nielsen (Thor Brekanæs, high sheriff), Karen Caspersen (Gunhild, sua moglie/his wife), Emanuel Gregers (Vasil Brekanæs), Peter Malberg (Aslak Brekanæs), Karina Bell (Thora, la figlioccia di Thor/Thor’s god-daughter), Charles Wilken (Gudmund, affittuario/tenant farmer), Sigurd Langberg (Swein Gudmundsson, suo figlio/his son).
prod: Nordisk Films Kompagni.
copia/copy: 35mm, 2346 m., 103′ (20 fps); did/titles: DAN.
fonte/source: Det Danske Filminstitut, København.
Film shown at the 36th Pordenone Silent Film Festival (section “Scandinavian Cinema: The Swedish Challenge”).