10 September 2019

Thora van Deken (1920)

In the first half of the 20th century Pauline Brunius (1881-1954) was the grand old lady of the Swedish theatre. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, she also focused on film directing and film acting. In the silent psychological drama Thora van Deken/A Mother’s Fight (1920), she was directed by her husband, John W. Brunius. The film was based on 'Lille Rødhætte: Et Portræt' (Little Red Riding Hood: A Portrait) by Henrik Pontoppidan.

Pauline Brunius in Thora van Deken
Swedish postcard by Verlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm. no. 1095/11. Photo: Skandia Film. Pauline Brunius in Thora van Deken (John W. Brunius, 1920).

Pauline Brunius and Hugo Björne in Thora van Deken
Swedish postcard by Verlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1095/2. Photo: Skandia Film. Pauline Brunius and Hugo Björne in Thora van Deken (John W. Brunius, 1920).

Pauline Brunius and Gösta Cederland in Thora van Deken
Swedish postcard by Verlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1095/4. Photo: Skandia Film. Pauline Brunius and Gösta Cederland in Thora van Deken (John W. Brunius, 1920).

A Testament and Rumours


Thora van Deken (Pauline Brunius), divorced wife of estate owner Niels Engelstoft (Hugo Björne), is called to her husband's deathbed by pastor Bjerring (Gösta Ekman), who tries to achieve a reconciliation between the spouses before the man dies.

Thora knows through the newspapers that Engelstoft in his will ordered the estate Sofiehöj to become a resting place for women and would be managed by rector Brandt (Oscar Johanson), brother of Sophie, the newly-deceased young woman with whom the landlord lived after his divorce.

Thora is determined to change this shameful relationship in favour of Esther (Jessie Wessel), her own daughter with Engelstoft. The meeting between the spouses becomes hesitant and suspicious. Thora reminds him of their common past, and the break-up of their marriage because of Engelstoft's infidelity with Sofie Brandt. Thora urges him to change his will for their daughter Esther's sake. The quarrel becomes awesome and ends with Engelstoft dying.

Thora then declares that the landowner, in her presence and out of free will, burned the testament and immediately before his death declared that his daughter Esther with Thora as guardian would take over Sofiehöj. This statement is faced with the distrust of the locals. The disputed Rector Brandt, along with his lawyer, takes steps to make the original testament valid.

Despite the rumours, Thora and Esther move into the manor house, where Pastor Bjerring becomes a frequent visitor, eventually becoming increasingly affectionate with Esther. Love is answered, which Thora sees with great concern because she does not want her daughter to give her life a great deal. She herself is full of self-denial.

Jessie Wessel and Gösta Ekman in Thora van Deken
Swedish postcard by Verlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1095/5. Photo: Skandia Film. Gösta Ekman and Jessie Wessel in Thora van Deken (John W. Brunius, 1920).

Pauline Brunius in Thora van Deken
Swedish postcard by Verlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1095/7. Photo: Skandia Film. Pauline Brunius and Jessie Wessel in Thora van Deken (John W. Brunius, 1920).

Jessie Wessel in Thora van Deken
Swedish postcard by Verlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1095/8. Photo: Skandia Film. Jessie Wessel in Thora van Deken (John W. Brunius, 1920).

The breath of shame


When the courtesy's folly goes hand in hand, finally, Thora van Deken accepts district steward Lars Sidenius's (Gösta Cederlund) proposal to get the testament legally tested. Sidenius reminds Thora of that time long ago when he loved her but became so cruel when she married rich Niels Engelstoft. Sidenius has never ceased to love her and wishes nothing higher than to get her free from all unhappy suspicions.

An interrogation at the town hall follows, where Thora's duties are seriously asked, mainly by the nurse who cared for Engelstoft during his last day. Thora is forced to swear to her story: when she puts her fingers on the Bible, she sees the breath of shame. At the same time as the interrogation is in progress, two crucial events occur. Pastor Bjerring is asked to be accepted as an Asian missionary by a missionary company thanks to a donation from an anonymous donor (who is, in fact, Thora van Deken).

Esther discovers that her father's will has never been burned but is being stored in the secretary of Thora. This insight convinces Esther to follow the pastor and the couple embarks on a steamer that will bring them to Asia. Thora no longer has anything to live for. She surrenders the hidden testament of her husband, confesses and goes to prison.

In his review for Kosmorama, Casper Tybjerg writes: "The Swedish film Thora van Deken from 1920, though little-known and rarely seen, is a strikingly well-made and well-acted psychological drama. Based on a short novel by Henrik Pontoppidan, it is consistently structured around its title character, a hard and uncompromising woman who commits a crime for her daughter’s sake. (...) the film’s staging and the performance of the lead actress, Pauline Brunius, presents her to us in a gratifyingly non-judgmental and unsentimental way.

The film lacks the folkloristic ambience which many contemporaries regarded as a key quality of films like Victor Sjöström’s The Sons of Ingmar. Nevertheless, Thora van Deken was explicitly presented and received as part of the same school or trend on the basis of its psychological realism and of the literary prestige of its source.

In 1920, Carl Th. Dreyer (then an up-and-coming young director) had written that the distinctive quality of the Swedish cinema of the post-Terje Vigen period – in contrast to both action-packed American movies and the crime thrillers and melodramas dominating the output of the Danish film industry – was its emphasis on psychology rather than physical action: “The Swedish art film […] has acquired its distinctive character by becoming a medium for true and genuine human representation”. On this view – which was echoed by a number of commentators at the time – Thora van Deken was very much a film that shared this distinctive character."

Pauline Brunius in Thora van Deken
Swedish postcard by Verlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1095/9. Photo: Skandia Film. Pauline Brunius, Gösta Ekman, Jessie Wessel and Oscar Johansson in Thora van Deken (John W. Brunius, 1920).

Pauline Brunius and Jessie Wessel in Thora van Deken
Swedish postcard by Verlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1095/10. Photo: Skandia Film. Pauline Brunius and Jessie Wessel in Thora van Deken (John W. Brunius, 1920).

Sources: Casper Tybjerg (Kosmorama), The Swedish Film Database, Wikipedia (Swedish) and IMDb .

No comments: