I love it when filmmakers during the silent era took their cameras into the wilderness, away from creeping civilization, to tell stories of hardship and survival against significant odds. Victor Sjöström, an early pioneer of Swedish cinema, tells such a story in “The Outlaw and His Wife,” released in 1918.
The Outlaw and His Wife concerns Berg-Ejvind (Sjöström), a man who shows up unexpectedly one day in a foothills village in Iceland. A local man, Arnes (John Ekman), is accused of stealing wool, but Berg-Ejvind protects him from the zealous sheriff. As a reward, Arnes introduces Berg-Ejvind to a local female rancher who instantly falls for him. The rancher, Halla (Edith Erastoff), eventually appoints Berg-Ejvind as the supervisor of her lands. With his new responsibilities and their blossoming romance, everything seems to be going well for Berg-Ejvind.
However, the sheriff, who also loves Halla, becomes increasingly suspicious of Berg-Ejvind. He can cause big trouble for the couple and Berg-Ejvind knows it because he harbors a dark secret. He finally confesses to Halla about his past; he once stole a sheep to feed his family. For that, he received a long prison term but he escaped before fully serving it out. Berg-Ejvind must run again, but this time he takes to the high mountains with his new love Halla.
Berg-Ejvind and Halla’s odyssey in the high mountains begins idyllically; the couple is able to live off the land and the purity of their love seems to suppress all the evil in the world. They are at the top of the world both literally and figuratively, finding happiness in their simple surroundings, fishing in the clear streams and foraging with no interference from the outside world. Sjöström makes the most of the beautiful and picturesque landscape, which was actually filmed in Northern Sweden.
How long can Berg-Ejvind and Halla survive in this wilderness without outside interference? Eventually, Arnes visits and puts the couple’s resolve to its biggest test. But whatever rivalries and troubles arise for the couple, the theme remains one of man against nature. Outlaws can find a way to outrun the law, but even the hardiest ones cannot triumph against unforgiving winters and withering hunger. Until the end, the main question in The Outlaw and his wife is whether Berg-Ejvind and Halla can survive the harsh elements.
This breathtaking production plays like an Icelandic western, with themes and situations comparable to many Hollywood westerns — bold themes, spectacular scenery and a straightforward interplay of good versus evil. I watched it at the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSSF) with musical accompaniment by the Swedish Matti Bye Ensemble.