Mauritz Stiller, “Vingarne (The Wings)”, 1916, Silent Film Scenes, Screenwriters Axel Esbensen and Mauritz Stiller, Cinematography Julius Jaenzon, Original Running Time 69 Minutes, Distributor Svenska Biografteatem
Born in July of 1883 in Helsinki, Mauritz Stiller, birth name Moshe Stiller, was a Swedish film director of Finnish Jewish descent known for his pioneering work in the Swedish film industry. His family of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage originally lived in Russia and Poland before settling in Finland. At that time, these countries were autonomous regions of the Imperial Russia under Emperor Alexander III.
Mauritz Stiller was raised by family friends after the death of his father in 1887 and the subsequent suicide of his mother. Interested in acting from an early age, he was offered the opportunity to practice his acting skills in the city theaters of Åbo and Helsinki. In his twenties, Stiller received a draft notice to enter the army of Czar Nicholas II, who as the last Emperor of Russia had ascended to the throne in November of 1894. Instead of entering service, Stiller chose exile and settled in Sweden where he later became a citizen in 1921.
By 1912 at the age of twenty-nine, Stiller had become a member of Sweden’s developing silent film industry. He initially was a scriptwriter, actor and director for short silent films. Stiller appeared as an actor in four films in 1912, his first being the role of a passenger in the 1912 “Trädgårdsmästaren (The Gardener). After these four films, Stiller focused on his writing and directing; he acted in only two more of his films: the 1914 “När Svärmor Regerar (When the Mother-in-Law Reigns)” and the 1916 “Vingarne (The Wings)”.
As his skills developed, Mauritz Stiller began directing feature-length productions. His 1918 feature “Thomas Graals Bästa Bam (The First Child of Thomas Graal)” received critical acclaim. This comedy on the best way to raise children starred actor and director Victor Sjöström and the stage and film actress Karin Molander. By 1920, Stiller had directed more than forty films and was considered a leading figure in the Swedish film industry. Among these films was the 1919 sixteenth-century crime drama “Herr Arnes Pengar (Sir Arne’s Treasure)” based on author Selma Lagerlöf’s 1903 “The Treasure”. This silent film was the first to feature illustrator Alva Lundin’s handwritten artistic title cards.
Stiller met a young actress named Greta Gustafsson at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. He cast her in the secondary but important role of Elizabeth Dohna in his 1924 romantic drama film “Gösta Berlings Saga (The Atonement of Gosta Berling)”. In 1925, Stiller accepted an offer from Louis B. Mayer to direct for Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. He relocated to the United States accompanied by Gustafsson, soon to be given her acting name Greta Garbo, and the actor Einer Hanson, who had appeared in Stiller’s films. Both actors became successful at MGM; although Hanson achieved greater success with his move to Paramount Pictures.
Mauritz Stiller was assigned to direct the 1926 “The Temptress”, Greta Garbo’s second film with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. After repeated arguments with the studio’s executives, he was replaced on the film by Fred Niblo, who had recently finished work as principal director on the 1925 silent epic “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, the third highest-grossing silent film in history. His contract terminated, Stiller was immediately signed by Paramount Pictures for whom he made three successful films in 1927. However because of continuing disagreements with Paramount’s executives, Stiller was terminated in the middle of his fourth film.
Mauritz Stiller returned to Sweden in 1927; he died in Stockholm from pleurisy, an infection in his lungs, at the age of forty-five in November of 1928. His body is interred at the Northern Cemetery in the Solna Municipality of Stockholm. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Stiller was given a star in 1960 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A monument in Stiller’s honor was erected in the southern Swedish city of Kristianstad.
Notes: Mauritz Stiller’s 1916 silent film “Vingarne (The Wings)” was adapted from Danish author Herman Joachim Bang’s 1902 novel “Mikaël”, based on the life of sculptor Auguste Rodin. The novel would serve, eight years later, as the source for director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1924 silent film “Mikaël: The Story of the Third Sex”. Besides being an early homosexual-themed film, “Vingarne” is noted for its plot presented through flashbacks, as well as its use of a framing story, a main narrative that sets the stage for a set of shorter stories. The film is largely lost; only thirty minutes of its original seventy minute length still survives. There are several versions of the remaining film with added soundtracks on YouTube.
“Vingarne” tells the story of a devious countess (Danish actress Lili Bech) who comes between gay sculptor Claude Zoret (Norwegian actor Egil Eide) and his bisexual lover and model Mikaël (Swedish actor Lars Hanson). This leads to Zoert’s death at the base of a statue depicting Mikaël as the mythological winged Icarus. It should be noted that openly gay Swedish actor Nils Asther, later a Hollywood star, had his first film role, albeit uncredited, in Stiller’s “Vingarne”.
A biography of Nils Asther can be found in the Film History Series archive of this site.
Top Insert Image: Arnold Genthe, “Mauritz Stiller” Date Unknown, Photo Proof
Second Insert Image: Mauritz Stiller, “Hotel Imperial”, 1927, Film Poster, Cinematographer Bert Glennen, Production Famous Players-Lasky, Paramount Pictures
Third Insert Image: Roger Tillberg, “Greta Garbo and Mauritz Stiller”, 1925, Gelatin Silver Print
Fourth Insert Image: Mauritz Stiller, “The Street of Sin”, 1928, Film Poster, Cinematographer Bert Glennon, Harry Fischbeck and Victor Milner, Production Adolph Zucker and Jesse Lasky, Paramount Pictures
Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Mauritz Stiller, Pola Negri, George Siegmann”, 1927, Film Set of “Hotel Imperial”, Gelatin Silver Print