Stockholm, 21 June 1903.
Studies at the Royal Dramatic Theater.
Stage actor, from 1925; stage director, from 1927 (chief director, Royal
Dramatic Theater, from 1930); directed first film,
, 1929; returned to filmmaking, 1940.
Best Film (
), Cannes Festival, for
In Stockholm, 17 April 1980.
Den starkaste ( The Strongest ) (+ story)
Med livet som insats ( They Staked Their Lives ) (+ co-sc); Den blomstertid ( Blossom Time ) (+ sc)
Hem från Babylon ( Home from Babylon ) (+ co-sc)
Himlaspelet ( The Road to Heaven ) (+ co-sc)
Hets ( Torment ); Kungajakt ( The Royal Hunt )
Resan bort ( Journey Out ) (+ sc)
Iris och lö jtnantsh järta ( Iris and the Lieutenant ) (+ sc)
Bara en mor ( Only a Mother ) (+ co-sc)
Fröken Julie ( Miss Julie ) (+ sc)
Barabbas (+ co-sc)
Karin Mansdotter (+ sc)
Vildfåglar ( Wild Birds ) (+ co-sc)
Sista paret ut ( Last Pair Out )
Domaren ( The Judge ) (+ co-sc)
On ( The Island )
Fadern ( The Father )
Interview in Chaplin (Stockholm), December 1965.
"Ingmar Bergman's Schooldays," an interview with Peter Cowie in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), April 1983.
Cowie, Peter, Swedish Cinema , New York, 1966.
Lundin, Gunnar, Filmregi Alf Sjöberg , Lund, 1979.
Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 7, 1969.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 30 April 1980.
"Bergman on Sjöberg," in National Film Theatre Booklet (London), September 1982.
Werner, Gosta, "Alf Sjoberg som filmskapare," in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 25, no. 3, 1983.
* * *
Along with Sjöström, Stiller, and Bergman, Alf Sjöberg must be counted as one of the most significant directors of the Swedish cinema, and indeed as the most important in that long period between the departure of Sjöström and Stiller for Hollywood and the establishment of Bergman as a mature talent. However, it is hard not to agree with the judgement of Peter Cowie when he states that Sjöberg "is hampered by a want of thematic drive, for he is not preoccupied, like Bergman, with a personal vision. He has not created a world to which one returns with an immediate feeling of recognition and empathy. Each of his films is a solitary achievement, illuminating for a moment the universe of Strindberg, Lagerkvist and others with a cinematic expertise that rarely falters. . . . If one concludes that Sjöberg's most successful accomplishments are founded on the inspiration of others . . . , it is not to deny his impeccable craftsmanship, his uncanny grasp of historical period, and his gift for describing his characters compellingly within their environment."
After studying with Greta Garbo at Stockholm's famous Dramatic Theatre School, Sjöberg rapidly made a name for himself as a theatre director, becoming chief director at the Stockholm Theatre by 1930. In the late 1920s he encountered the films of Eisenstein and Pabst, but the chief influence on his early films would appear to be the fatalism and melancholy of French "poetic realism" of the 1930s. However, in his first film, The Strongest , an epic tale of the seal hunters of Arctic Norway, the influences would appear to be an intriguing blend of Jack London, Robert Flaherty, the Sjöström of The Outlaw and His Wife and, in the remarkably fluidly edited bear-hunt that climaxes the film, Eisenstein. All this was too much for a cinema industry preoccupied with feeble studio comedies and light dramas, and Sjöberg was unable to make another film for ten years. Instead he confined his experiments in mise-en-scène to the theatre.
In They Stake Their Lives , a sombre story of the underground in an unidentified Baltic totalitarian state, and The Royal Hunt , which deals with Russian attempts to overthrow Gustav III of Sweden in the late eighteenth century, there are clear references to the Nazi threat. In more general terms these films deal with the theme of power and domination, one of the threads that runs through much of the director's work. More important, however, is The Road to Heaven , a film very much in the Sjöström/Lagerlöf tradition that is generally regarded as one of the finest of the period 1920–1950 and an important milestone in the revival of the Swedish cinema at this time. A sort of Swedish Pilgrim's Progress , it draws heavily on the same kind of Swedish peasant art which influenced The Seventh Seal , though it is both more nationalistic and more specifically and directly Christian in inspiration than that work. As Forsyth Hardy has pointed out, "it helped to give spiritual structure to the revival of the Swedish cinema."
Frenzy signalled a new departure both for Swedish cinema in general and Sjöberg's work in particular, as well as the arrival of a powerful new talent in the form of its scriptwriter—Ingmar Bergman. In its story of a tyrannical schoolmaster (aptly nicknamed Caligula) who torments one of his students beyond endurance, Sjöberg clearly found a subject close to his heart, one which went beyond the obvious theme of youthful ardour vs. oppressive, reactionary middle and old age. The story allowed him to explore power relationships (with all their distinctly sexual ramifications) in a more general way. Sjöberg created a remarkably claustrophobic and sombre atmosphere to match Bergman's agonised screenplay—there are few sets, less still exterior shots, and the harsh lighting at times recalls the German silent cinema.
One of the themes explored in Frenzy is the destructive effect of outdated class divisions, and the evils of class society are also very much to the fore in Only a Mother , which is set among the "stataren," rural communities where farm labourers and their families were forced to endure almost serf-like conditions. The social dimension of Sjöberg's work at this time is a reminder that Sweden had recently introduced the full apparatus of a welfare state. At the same time, the director is still much preoccupied with formal matters, experimenting here with deep focus, huge close-ups, and sharply angled interior shots.
Sjöberg's best known film is probably Miss Julie , which transforms Strindberg's by-then rather outdated condemnation of the class system into a study of power relationships between the sexes. Here the sado-masochistic element comes right to the fore, which earned the film a rather risqué reputation in Anglo-Saxon countries. In addition to instituting considerable modifications to the original story, Sjöberg also experimented with rapid transitions between past and present, often without the aid of cuts, and the film also contains a rare example of the flash-forward. Like Iris and the Lieutenant and Only a Mother, Miss Julie is also an indictment of the position of women under a stern patriarchal order. Strindberg was also the inspiration behind Karin Mansdotter , parts of which were based on his play Erik XIV. Beginning with a bizarre (and rather out of place) parody of cinematic costume drama, the film is beautifully shot, mostly on location in some of Sweden's most spectacular castles, by Sven Nykvist.
In his later work Sjöberg returned to contemporary Swedish society. The struggle between the sexes is continued in Wild Birds and the Bergman-scripted The Last Pair Out. At the same time, the director's concern with social injustice is evident in The Judge , an indictment of dubious legal activities, and The Island , in which the central character urges his apathetic fellow islanders to fight government plans to take away their land and turn it into a gunnery range. It has to be admitted, however, that Sjöberg's later work does not show him at his best; characters too often come across as mere puppets, there are too many wordy passages, and Sjöberg often seems unable to sustain any consistency of mood or refrain from exaggerated melodramatics. Still, his dramatically resonant use of settings, and the way in which he controls his characters' movements within them, remain interesting, reminding one that Sjöberg, at his best, has been compared to Emile Zola.