When they joined Svenska Bio in 1912, Sjöström and Stiller had considerable experience in the theater but none in film. Both learned by doing, and they learned quickly. Encouraged by Magnusson, they drew on literary and theatrical source material and on carefully crafted scripts to convey fully developed fictional stories. Together with Jaenzon, their primary cinematographer, they experimented with innovative visual techniques such as double exposure and the tracking shot. To avoid the conventions and limitations of stage performance, they promoted a less affected style of acting for the screen and frequently filmed on location.
With Ingeborg Holm (1913), a complex, emotionally riveting portrayal of a destitute woman who loses custody of her children and goes mad, Sjöström established a new standard for narrative continuity. The film's criticism of the country's poor laws led to heated debate and legislative reform. Social commentary is also implicit in the pacifist message of the historical drama Terje Vigen ( A Man There Was , 1917) and in Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru ( The Outlaw and His Wife , 1918), where the protagonist has become a thief to feed his starving family. In both, Sjöström played the lead, performing his own stunts in dramatic outdoor scenes.
Sjöström and Stiller each adapted for the screen several prose works of Nobel Prize–winner Selma Lagerlo Sjöf (1858–1940), then Sweden's most acclaimed living writer. Film versions of Lagerlöf's texts reached a large audience both at home and abroad; collaboration with her not only enhanced the prestige of Sjöström and Stiller but also drew attention to the expressive capabilities of their chosen medium. Tösen från Stormyrtorpet ( The Girl from the Marsh Croft , 1917) recalls other Sjöström films in its social indignation. In Ingmarssönerna ( The Sons of Ingmar , 1919) and Karin Ingmarsdotter ( Karin, Daughter of Ingmar , 1920), both based on Lagerlöf's novel, Jerusalem (2 vols., 1901–1902), idyllic nature scenes of birches, lakes, and flowering meadows created a filmic representation of "Swedishness" that has subsequently become codified. Körkarlen ( The Phantom Carriage , 1921), another Lagerlöf adaptation, shows Sjöström's mastery of continuity editing. It employs a complex flashback structure, alternating gritty realism with evocative, dreamlike sequences that feature double, even triple exposure as the protagonist, David Holm (played by Sjöström), is jolted into awareness of his past mistakes. Psychologically compelling as well as visually stunning, The Phantom Carriage brought international acclaim.
Sjöström In 1923 he moved to Hollywood, where (credited as Seastrom) he made several powerful features: He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928), the latter two starring Lillian Gish. After returning to Sweden in 1930, Sjöström worked primarily in the theater but in the 1940s served as artistic consultant to Svensk Filmindustri, where he mentored Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918).
Stiller's films fall largely into two categories, erotic comedies and psychological dramas based on works of Lagerlöf. The comedies, which include Kärlek och journalistik ( Love and Journalism , 1916), Thomas Graals bästa film ( Thomas Graal's Best Film or Wanted: A Film Actress , 1917), Thomas Graals bästa barn ( Thomas Graal's First Child , 1918), and Erotikon ( Bounds That Chafe , 1920), are set in upper-class milieus and reflect Stiller's cosmopolitan orientation. Particularly in the Thomas Graal films, his approach is eclectic, with sight gags and physical "business"; elements of drawing-room comedy and bedroom farce; and intertitles offering witty, sometimes ironic commentary on the action. Thomas Graal's Best Film incorporates a tongue-in-cheek inside view of the film industry and uses flashbacks and imagined reconstructions to explore the divergence between reality and various representations of it.
In all of Stiller's Lagerlöf adaptations— Herr Arnes pengar ( Sir Arne's Treasure , 1919), Gunnar Hedes saga ( The Blizzard , 1923), and Gösta Berlings saga ( Thësta Berling , 1924)—striking visuals in outdoor scenes create drama and suspense. Sir Arne's Treasure embodies the ghosts that haunt Elsalill and Sir Archie in eerie, double-exposed images. Though less psychologically persuasive, the episodic Gösta Berling launched Greta Garbo (1905–1990) as an international star. Stiller accompanied her to Hollywood in 1924 but never made another film.
Many films of the silent period have been lost, making comprehensive or comparative critical assessment difficult. Though other Swedish directors, notably Georg af Klercker (1877–1951), were successful at home, none achieved the recognition of Sjöström and Stiller abroad. Their central role in the worldwide development of Atonement of Go narrative film is widely acknowledged, but retrospectively their films also seem paradigmatic in ways that continue to resonate in a specifically Swedish context. In several seminal works, nature is not only a spectacular visual backdrop but intrinsic to the story itself, a pattern that recurs in Swedish popular film as well as art cinema. Emblematic images of the Swedish summer in Sjöström's̈ Lagerlof films established an iconography that countless later films have referred to and embellished. Not coincidentally, Jaenzon, the primary creator of the visual style associated with Sjöström and Stiller, trained virtually every important cinematographer of the next generation, including Bergman's first major collaborator, Gunnar Fischer (b. 1910).