Erotikon is undoubtedly a key event in the history of Swedish cinema. A major hit internationally as well, it is said to have inspired chiefly Ernst Lubitsch who would go on to perfect the concept of bitingly funny social satires. The film is now fondly remembered by Swedish film historians… but largely forgotten abroad, rarely mentioned alongside films like The Gold Rush and Nosferatu. Erotikon may not have vampires or Charlie Chaplin eating a shoe, but it does after all have sexual innuendos… But is it a masterpiece or not?
An absent-minded professor of entomology
Mauritz Stiller and co-writer Arthur Nordén lifted the plot for this comedy from a Hungarian play and the title from a Swedish play. We’re introduced to the Charpentiers, a well-to-do couple in Stockholm. Leo (Anders de Wahl) is a somewhat absent-minded professor of entomology; Irene (Tora Teje) spends her days shopping (she enjoys tormenting the local fur dealer, trying on every piece of clothing in his store and then declare that she’s too exhausted to buy anything). Most of her days also go by in the company of suitors who find her beautiful and keep hoping that she might one day leave the professor; they include the charming aviator Baron Felix (Vilhelm Bryde) and the earnest artist Preben (Lars Hanson).
Leo is not without his admirers, though. His niece Marte (Karin Molander) hangs around the university, listening to his lectures and dreaming of one day being able to take care of him and treat him to her fabulous lamb and cabbage stew. This odd situation can’t go on forever. Preben is the most anxious of the lot to bring about definitive changes…
Moving away from the theater
There is no question that Stiller was one of Sweden’s and perhaps Europe’s most accomplished filmmakers at the time; many silents had a tendency to be rather lifeless, but together with his cameraman Henrik Jaenzon, Stiller kept moving away from the theater-bound way of viewing film sequences. The possibilities of a movable camera were there to be used, and he also worked on making cuts between scenes smoother. His efforts added to the sophisticated feel of the comedy. There’s also an interesting (although perhaps a tad too obvious) performance at the Royal Opera where the central characters’ dilemmas are portrayed on stage.
The amusing dialogue of the intertitles cleverly makes several other scenes come alive… but my main problem with the film is the story. The writers have done their best to hide the fact that it is very common, without any truly memorable moments. As for the sexual content, the innuendos are fairly innocuous and the most scandalous ingredient may be the fact that the professor gets it on with his niece (admittedly a quaint part of the story, but the couple does on the other hand share a hilarious last scene). The cast is excellent, especially de Wahl and Teje as the unusually liberal couple.
So, is the film overrated or underrated? It should be admired for the director’s accomplishments, the light touch and the acting, but the fact that nothing in the film makes it stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of the bunch at the time should not be ignored. My rating is a perfect compromise, don’t you think?
Erotikon 1920-Sweden. Silent. 86 min. B/W. Directed by Mauritz Stiller. Screenplay: Mauritz Stiller, Arthur Nordén. Play: Ferenc Herczeg. Cinematography: Henrik Jaenzon. Cast: Anders de Wahl (Leo Charpentier), Tora Teje (Irene Charpentier), Karin Molander (Marte Charpentier), Elin Lagergren, Lars Hanson, Vilhelm Bryde.
Trivia: Alternative version of the film runs 106 min. The play was also filmed in Germany as The Blue Fox (1938).