Iceland digitised

Advertisement for The Prodigal Son (Glafaði sonurinn) in the icelandic newspaper Lögberg, 17 January 1924

Here’s a new and interesting challenge for the dedicated silent film researcher with a world view – Icelandic newspapers. Timarit.is is a digital library of the printed cultural heritage as preserved in newspapers and periodicals of the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland. It brings together the collections of the National Library of the Faroe Islands, the National and Public Library of Greenland and the National and University Library of Iceland. It’s an ongoing project, but there are already nearly three-and-a-half million digitised documents on the site.

So what is there on film? Well, this is where the challenge comes in, because Icelandic is not one of the easier texts to navigate, and because I really only know one thing about Iceland and silent film, which is that it was the location for one of the longest, and most tedious, British films ever made, The Prodigal Son (1923), directed by A.E. Coleby, produced by Stoll, starring Stewart Rome and based on a novel by Hall Caine. In its fullest version the film was 18,454 feet in length, running to some four-and-a-half hours of screen time. I am one of the few who has actually sat through what survives of this film – the BFI has a version at a trim 9,118 feet – which it still took two long afternoons to get through. Funereal in pace, grimly histrionic, leadenly directed and singularly inept in its failure to make any creative use of its Icelandic settings, it is near the top of my top ten worst ever screen experiences. But it was made in Iceland, so what can we find about it in the Icelandic press of the time?

And the answer is quite a lot. Typing in “prodigal son” (in quotes) into Timarit.is brings up sixty-nine results, which it helpfully subdivides into decades, so you can instantly see that there are twenty-four hits from 1920-29 (and it then further subdividies these by individual years). You also quickly see that the film’s title in Icelandic was Glataði sonurinn. There are pieces on its production in 1922, its release in 1924, and its reissue (to something around 6,000 feet) in 1929. There are no photographs, but there are advertisements, you are able to gain enough of an idea about its importance and impact.

Varied film offerings advertised in Morgunblaðið, 22 September 1928

The presentation is excellent, with guidelines available in English. The search results given you a link to the title of the individual newspaper page, a line of text in which the search term appears, the date and page reference. Clicking on the link gives you a calendar (enabling you to browse adjacent issues), and a PDF of the full newspaper page with your search term highlighted. Thereafter it does depend on how strong your Icelandic is, but searching on some popular film names gives an indication of exposure and popularity – 547 hits for Chaplin between 1910 and 1929, 200 for Pickford, 272 for Fairbanks, 41 for Max Linder, and so on. Such hits usually lead you to advertisements for cinema programmes, so you can readly pick up an idea of what was being shown and when. Or just type in kvikmynd (film). It is possible to view text only (there’s a Text button on the left-hand column), so you can copy and paste text into Google Translate or whatever and get a rough idea of what’s going on.

There was a small Icelandic film industry in the silent era. The first films (actualities) were made in 1906, the same year that the Reykjavik Cinema Theatre was established. The first locally-produced fiction film was Ævintýri Jóns og Gvendar (The Adventures of Jon and Gvendur) (1923), directed by Loftur Guðmundsson. A feature film, Saga Borgaraettarinnar (Sons of the Soil), was made in Iceland in 1920, but it was a Danish production by Nordisk films (Iceland did not become completely independent of Denmark until 1944). However, there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot more that was produced for several years thereafter, so Icelandic cinema for our period chiefly means exhibition, for which there is plenty to discover here. All in all, Timarit.is is well worth investigating for the bold and adventurous among you. Go explore.

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