Directed by: Victor Sjöström
Written by: Victor Sjöström, Nils Krok (play)
Also known as Margaret Day in the UK, this film is significant for two reasons: first of all, it is considered by some as the beginning of the Golden Age of Swedish Cinema. Although most sources, including The Swedish Film Database, place it in 1917 with the release of Terje Vigen / A Man There Was – another adaptation by Victor Sjöström (this time a poem by Hendrik Ibsen) – Ingeborg Holm is often mentioned and is at the very least a precursor to the Golden Age. Second, its subject matter prompted debate in Sweden regarding social welfare and led to changes in laws. It demonstrated how effective the medium could be in enacting change in society.
The film is split into four acts. The first act quickly establishes the family’s everyday circumstances: they have a sizable allotment garden, decent accommodation and even a maid. During a meal, they receive good news – the husband’s loan of 10,000 kronor to open a shop is approved! The letter notes that this is in large part due to managing to save up 4,000 kronor with his modest wage, which is seen as a show of good character. All of this compounds into a “normal” that audiences can contrast with later misfortunes. Events are set in motion when Sven Holm collapses while setting up the shop and passes away in bed. The business struggles due to their young employee only having eyes for select female customers and they eventually go bankrupt. The act ends with Ingeborg contacting the family lawyer for advice.
Things only get worse for the Holm family and the second act begins with their belongings being sold off to pay for their debts. Ingeborg turns to the National Board of Poverty Alleviation (fattigvårdsstyrelsen), where we see people in the waiting room being mistreated by an official – a taste of things to come. There is little doubt in the stance the film takes on the subject. The group of men who make all the decisions ignore her and talk among each other, then give her a choice: she can either accept 20 kronor a month or move to a poorhouse and have the kids placed in foster care. Not wanting her kids to become beggars, she opts for the latter. She packs their things and places a toy boat and a photo of herself in one of the numbered baskets – almost as if the kids themselves are just reduced to numbers by the system.
The film avoids being melodramatic due to the subtle acting, especially by Hilda Borgström. Ingeborg’s grief does not manifest in elaborate shows of despair but reserved facial expressions and mannerism. Note the sadness conveyed as she quietly packs her children’s belongings late at night or the moment she hides herself after saying goodbye to one of her children and attempts to catch one last glimpse only to be too late – they are out of sight. By signaling her inner emotional state in subtle ways contributed to the realism of the film, which was unusual for the time as the medium still largely relied on over-the-top theatrics.
To emphasize Ingeborg’s plight and isolation, the film also casts the poor in a bad light – she is paired up with a haggard old lady who tempts her with alcohol and then scolds her when she refuses. Not only is she caught up in a broken system that has torn apart her family, she is now surrounded by reprobates that attempt to lead her astray. To make matters worse, she discovers that one of her children, Valborg, is sick and is refused to go and see her due to financial reasons. This concludes the second act.
The third act begins with her escape from the poorhouse and the hunt for her that follows. At this point, the social workers truly become an antagonistic force hell-bent on preventing her from seeing her sick child. She is as if a convict who has escaped from prison. She receives help from a passerby who gives her a ride and a family hides her from the law, while police officers are given directions by roadside workers. These actions seem to tie in directly with the film’s message on social care – that we would be nowhere as a society without help from each other. The officers apprehend her outside of Valborg’s new home but have enough heart to allow Ingeborg to see her child – alas, too late.
She is returned to the poorhouse at the beginning of the fourth act. The establishment receives a bill for services rendered and they make no attempt to hide their displeasure from her. Some time later, she is allowed a meeting with her youngest child, who no longer recognizes her. This proves to be the final straw – her mind snaps and she is put in a psychiatric ward. The staging of the scene offers an interesting contrast with the one of Ingeborg first visiting the National Board of Poverty Alleviation (fattigvårdsstyrelsen); whereas the men first conferred around a table and she was cast aside, they now surround her like a suffocating and oppressive presence.
15 years pass and Ingeborg’s son, Erik, returns from sea – he still has the photograph of her and keen-eyed viewers also remember that she packed a toy sailboat in his box, something which seems to have had an immense influence on his life. In a way, it represents her hopes for her children because she put them in foster care to spare them of a future of being beggars. Her son fulfills this hope, having made something of himself. They are reunited but we are left to think of the many years lost and immense sacrifices.
At the center of the film is the titular character who can be summarized as a mother who loses agency and is unable to perform her function as a mother. The drama derives from her attempts to do the best that she can despite setbacks and limitations. She goes through an increasing amount of grief throughout the course of the story:
Act 1: her husband dies, family goes bankrupt
Act 2: loses her house, loses her children
Act 3: one of her children dies
Act 4: one of her children doesn’t recognize her anymore
Her main attribute is her resilience and what contributes to the drama is when even this eventually runs out and she loses her sanity. We sympathize with her, not only because she goes through an incredible amount of hardship but because she is selfless – her actions are not for her benefit but that of her children. The film not only critiques social services by showing the disintegration of a family but celebrates the self-sacrifice of mothers. Though Ingeborg might be accused of being one-dimensional by contemporary audiences, her simple characteristics turn her into a symbol of care and compassion, which contrast with the cold and ruthless men. Considering her treatment, we are left to wonder if a patriarchal system is truly appropriate, especially in social care.
1. How would you remake Ingeborg Holm to reflect a contemporary issue?
2. Look at your script. What are the obstacles in your main character’s path? How does your main character overcome these? At what cost?
3. Come up with a scenario that involves a conflict. Swap scenarios with a partner and come up with something that solves the immediate conflict but leads to another one. Trade with your partner again. Keep this going for as long as you want.
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Hagerfors, L. (2016). ‘Ingeborg Holm’, Svenska Filminstitutet. Available at: https://www.filminstitutet.se/sv/fa-kunskap-om-film/ta-del-av-filmsamlingarna/filmer/ingeborg-holm/ [Accessed: 26 July 2022].
IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Ingeborg Holm (1913)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0003014/ [Accessed: 26 July 2022].
popegrutch (2014). ‘Ingeborg Holm (1913)’, Century Film Project, 8 December. Available at: https://centuryfilmproject.org/2014/12/08/ingeborg-holm-1913/ [Accessed: 26 July 2022].
Rosborn, M. (2017). ‘The Golden Age of Swedish Cinema’, The Swedish Film Database. Available at: https://www.svenskfilmdatabas.se/en/the_golden_age_of_cinema/ [Accessed: 29 July 2022].
Travers, J. (n.d.). ‘Ingeborg Holm (1913)’, French Films.org. Available at: http://www.frenchfilms.org/review/ingeborg-holm-1913.html [Accessed: 26 July 2022].