Walrus and Blubber and Seals, Oh My!

In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become as much about live music as it is about silent film. Certain musicians (Stephen Horne, David Sosin, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra) have become clear audience favorites. But a special relationship seems to have developed with the Matti Bye Ensemble, which often accompanies the screenings of silent films from Sweden.

With Bye at the piano, the ensemble’s members (Kristian Holmgren, Henrik Olsson, and Leo Svensson) perform on glockenspiel, violin, musical saw, mellotron, and percussion, often creating eerie, unnerving soundscapes that work particularly well for films about isolationdepression, depravity, and alienation. Whether crafting the accompaniment for nightmares, illusions, or loneliness, part of Bye’s artistic strength is knowing when to remain silent and let the stillness in the theatre say more than even music can.

While part of Bye’s strength lies in musical improvisation, he has also composed film scores for contemporary releases. Since 1989, Bye has been the resident silent film pianist at the Swedish Film Institute. Here in San Francisco, the Matti Bye Ensemble has accompanied screenings of:

For the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, they were tasked with accompanying two films set near the Arctic Circle. One, hailed as a pioneering landmark in the filming of nature, has achieved great name recognition since its premiere in 1922 (even if many movie fans have never seen it). The other, filmed at the tail end of the silent era, is a masterful piece of storytelling set against the bucolic farmland lining a Scandinavian fjord and the ice floes adrift in the Arctic Ocean.

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Released in 1929, The Strongest was a joint effort between cinematographer Axel Lindblom and theatre director Alf Sjöberg in which two romantic rivals for a sea captain’s daughter must survive acute challenges on the drifting ice in the Arctic Ocean while hunting for polar bears under the summer’s Midnight Sun. Lindblom’s previous experience in the early 1920s shooting newsreels in the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean inspired him to create the screenplay

A scene from&nbsp;<i><strong>The Strongest</strong></i>
A scene from The Strongest

Originally titled Den Starkaste (The Bear Hunters), the film begins with the return of Skipper Larsen (Hjalmar Peters) and his first mate, Ole (Anders Henrikson), from a voyage on board Larsen's boat, the Viking. A gruff old sea captain, Larsen has imagined Ole to be a suitable husband for his daughter, Ingeborg (Gun Holmquist), a healthy young woman who manages their farm along with her grandmother (Maria Röhr). Nothing would please him more than to retire to the farm and let Ole take over his boat.

The view from Larsen's farm in&nbsp;<i><strong>The Strongest</strong></i>
The view from Larsen's farm in The Strongest

Although the two women have a clear idea of what it takes to run a farm, Ingeborg has absolutely no romantic interest in Ole. One day, while riding into town, she encounters a handsome stranger named Gustaf (Bengt Djurberg). a sailor who has recently arrived in town. When he shows up at Larsen’s farm asking if they have any food, Ingeborg’s grandmother tells him that he’ll have to do some chores first if he expects to be fed.

Strong, confident, and easy on the eyes, Gustaf gets to work. When the family’s farmhand starts coming on to Ingeborg, she immediately fires him and tells him to leave at once. Gustaf (who has never been a farmer in his life) easily takes over the man’s duties, happy that doing so can provide him with work, food, and a chance to be near Ingeborg. However, one day, while drinking with some sailors in town, Gustaf gets into a fight. The rifle which Larsen had given to Ole goes missing and Gustaf is accused of theft.

Ready to return to sea, he gets hired by the captain of the Maude, who turns out to be one of Larsen’s rivals. As the two vessels head north toward Spitzbergen, Gustaf reveals his skills as a marksman.

A scene from&nbsp;<i><strong>The Strongest</strong></i>
A scene from The Strongest

While at sea, the men are filmed hunting polar bears, seals, and walrus on the ice floes. When Larsen’s crew discovers that they are hunting in the same area as the Maude, Ole’s jealousy takes over and the rivalry becomes much more serious. Although the even-tempered Gustaf argues that there are plenty of seals for everyone, Larsen’s crew is intent on proving their territorial dominance. A plot device which continues through most of the film revolves around who has gained possession of the rifle which Captain Larsen had given to Ole. In scenes aboard the Maude, a young boy displays a touching kind of hero worship for Gustaf.

A scene from <i><strong>The Strongest</strong></i>
A scene from The Strongest

In his program essay, Sean Axmaker notes that:

“Where American and Europe filmmakers of the 1910s generally relied on locations near the studios or constructed imagined worlds on studio stages, Victor Sjöstrom, Mauritz Stiller, and others took their cameras deep into the wilderness, up into the mountains, onto the rocky coasts, and out onto the seas in order to capture majestic views and unforgiving environments unseen in other national cinemas. Lindblom’s photography enhances the differences between the gentle beauty of the farmland and the harsh environment of the Arctic, a desert of black water, white ice floes, and constant sunlight that can suddenly dissipate into a haze of fog, swallowing ships like seals disappearing under the water’s surface. The landscape wasn’t merely backdrop, it was an essential element of being Swedish and, in turn, became a character in its own right.”
A scene from&nbsp;<strong><i>The Strongest</i></strong>
A scene from The Strongest

While the scenes that take place on land may seem ordinary, once the crews are battling ice floes, fog, and jealousy, life at sea becomes much more intense. Sometimes the men must jump from one floe to another; in one critical scene, they haul a small boat onto the ice and drag it to the other side of a floe. When a life-or-death crisis develops, one of Ingeborg’s suitors must rescue the other, setting up the potential for a winner-takes-all scenario when Larsen’s boat returns home.

A scene from&nbsp;<strong><i>The Strongest</i></strong>
A scene from The Strongest

The finale, in which both Ingeborg and Gustaf have trouble asking Larsen for his blessing, is quickly resolved when it becomes obvious that Gustaf might otherwise ship out again aboard the Maude. Rather than cede the object of his daughter’s love to his rival at sea, Larsen mutters “What the hell, take them both” (referring to his boat and daughter). Grandma, of course, gives her blessing.

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Because we now live in a world where animals are systematically raised for slaughter, it’s easy to forget that the hunting and killing of wildlife was primarily based on the need for sustenance. Today’s technology allows us to overfish the ocean’s stock with the same clinical precision that well-paid poachers, dipshit dentists, and Donald Trump’s sons hunt rhinos and elephants (in addition to lions and tigers and bears). It wasn’t always so. In many parts of the world people hunted wildlife because they had few other options if they wished to survive. For those living in Arctic regions, time was of the essence if they were to avoid starvation.

Subtitled A Story Of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, 1922’s Nanook of the North was a revelation to viewers who had no idea how many people could fit into a kayak or how to build an igloo.

Compared to the rapid progress brought about by the Industrial Revolution and man’s newfound ability to conquer his surroundings, anything Jules Verne might have imagined was seeming closer and closer to reality.

Even after fighting World War I, few people had ever seen someone harpoon a seal and enlist his family’s help in order to help pull a dead pinniped through an ice hole and haul it out of the water so it could be cut up and eaten raw. The frigid lifestyle in the upper reaches of Hudson Bay was barely imaginable to most Westerners. In his program essay, David Thomson writes:

“In 1910, Robert J. Flaherty went to the Hudson Bay area prospecting. He was making maps and seeing what was there. He was given a Bell & Howell 16mm camera, and encouraged to film the unknown. So he accumulated and then lost 30,000 feet of coverage when a cigarette he was smoking set fire to the nitrate film stock. But he was enthused by the enterprise and, in 1920–1921, he went back (funded by the Revillon Frères Fur Company) with two more sophisticated cameras. Flaherty developed his film on location and then showed it to the Inuit. He cherished water, snow, and the sight of lone figures trudging along. What did he want or expect? He didn’t know.  Explorers and imaginers seldom do know. “
“In August 1920, Flaherty was in Port Harrison in Nord-du-Quebec intending to film the life of the Inuit. As he set out, he was doing this for its own sake in a spirit of inquiry. But he could not stay open-minded. He saw the Inuit, the epic simplicity of their lives (that’s not necessarily what they felt), and the endless challenge to survive. That meant finding fish, seal, or walrus to eat, and avoiding polar bears, devastating cold, starvation, illness, and an apparent lack of what we might call introspection. It was Flaherty’s genius to combine ethnography, the travelogue, and fictional filmmaking techniques to reveal the human drama of one Inuit family’s survival in the extreme conditions of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Flaherty had a superb eye for the windswept desert of snow, for the way flurries on the surface were like music chasing away silence, and for the revelation that people lived here. Despite its arguable claim to authenticity, it is told with respect and sensitivity and remains an astonishing work.”
Filming a seal killing for <strong><i>Nanook of the North</i></strong>
Filming a seal killing for Nanook of the North
After Nanook and his family built an igloo for shelter,<br>his dogs were left outside for the night
After Nanook and his family built an igloo for shelter,
his dogs were left outside for the night

Throughout the screening, the Matti Bye Ensemble’s music supported the footage Flaherty shot in a frigid wasteland much better than previous film scores. While many have embraced the authenticity of Flaherty’s documentary, Thomsen doesn’t hesitate to point out some of the artistic compromises that were made.

  • Flaherty cast an Inuit named Allakariallak for the semi-scripted role of Nanook.
  • Flaherty requested that the Inuits be filmed using only harpoons, spears, and bows and arrows even though, by 1920, they had begun to use rifles when hunting.
  • In real life, the actresses who portrayed Nyla and Cunayou had been Flaherty’s lovers while he was living in the region.
  • Because Flaherty couldn’t get a camera and lights inside Nanook’s igloo, he built a mock ice house on a set.
  • The scenes in which Nanook was shown how a gramophone works and attempted to bite a record were staged for the camera.

For those who are absolute purists, Flaherty’s artistic compromises in search of dramatic verisimilitude may seem reprehensible. However, under the circumstances, they are easily understandable. If you’ve never seen Nanook of the North, you can watch the film in its entirety in the following video.

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