A MAN THERE WAS (Victor Sjöström, 1916)

From Henrik Ibsen’s poem, Victor Sjöström’s Terje Vigen, from Sweden, is about a Norwegian sailor (Sjöström, robust, excellent), who, returning home, finds waiting for him, along with his wife, the fruit of his previous homecoming: an infant daughter. Terje Vigen “sobers down” as a result, rejecting a night of barroom comradery in favor of staying home. Implicitly, were his wife still his only companion, Vigen would scoot out in a heartbeat.
     The land and the sea, family and himself: these polar forces tug at Vigen’s heart. (In an amazing shot, Vigen stands at the open door of his cottage, looking out, his body indeed leaning out, the sea beckoning him.) A British blockade during the Napoleonic Wars leaves his family destitute, starving. Vigen will leave wife and daughter, but fortified with a rationalization capable of concealing his abandoning them: he will impossibly defy the naval blockade and procure food for his family at a safe port. On his way home the inevitable occurs; he is captured and imprisoned by the British. Part of the brilliant flexibility of Sjöström’s film is its impassioned anti-war plea at the time of another European war; but Terje Vigen homes in on Terje Vigen. Returning home, he discovers that wife and child both died after he “fled.” His denial that he did this provokes Vigen to seek unChristian revenge against the British captain who barred his reunion with homeland, wife, family. The sight of the man’s wife and daughter, though, purges Vigen of this madness and confronts him with his own responsibility. The closing image is one of peace and redemption: the cross marking the shared grave of his wife and daughter.
     Here facilitating his plans, there obstructing them, the sea suggests Vigen’s tortured ambivalence, his convoluted psychology.


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