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Stiller, Mauritz (1883-1928)  

Swedish film director Maurtiz Stiller's principal claim to fame is his discovery of an unknown actress, Greta Gustafsson, whom he renamed Greta Garbo. However, this flamboyant gay Svengali to a legendary lesbian star also deserves recognition as a key figure in forging a national cinema that was eventually to become notable for its progressive treatment of sexuality and desire.

Born Moshe Stiller in Finland in 1883, the son of Polish Jewish parents who died when he was five, Stiller was raised by family friends, the Katzmans, who were haberdashers. As a youth he attended Hebrew school, took violin lessons, and apprenticed at his foster parents' business until he was conscripted into the Russian army. Rather than serve, he escaped to Sweden.

Suffering from tuberculosis and poverty, the young man used money offered for a health cure to travel to Stockholm, where, checking into a top hotel, he posed as a dapper, successful German director. The daring scam garnered the connections necessary to embark on a career as a director, writer, and occasional actor in the burgeoning Swedish film industry.

Over two decades Stiller created works in various styles, from social realism to historical adventure and romance. Among his films are such titles as Mother and Daughter (1912), The Modern Suffragette (1913), Alexander the Great (1917), and Erotikon (1920).

Stiller's major triumphs, however, came in his innovative, poetic film versions of Swedish Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf's sweeping and intense epic novels. Lagerlöf voiced objections to Stiller's experimentalism, but the films are better for the director's resistance to slavishly literal adaptations.

Sir Arne's Treasure (1919) was followed by Gunnar Hedes' Saga (1923). In Gösta Berling's Saga (1924), Stiller cast as the heroine a shy, inexperienced ingenue who, under his guidance, gave a performance that caused a European sensation.

Seizing the moment, Stiller negotiated a contract for Garbo with MGM. He accompanied her to Hollywood, but constant bickering with studio bosses led him to be passed over as director of her first American film. He was sacked while directing her second, The Temptress (1926).

His fierce control over his once compliant protégée rapidly diminishing, a depressed Stiller returned to Sweden, where he died of pleurisy in 1928.

While playing on arrogant charm and sartorial elegance to manipulate his actresses (some of whom, including Garbo herself, he may have been romantically involved with), Stiller was also known for his homosexual liaisons, including a rumoured failed affair with a Danish set designer, who committed suicide.

Although his films do not overtly reflect on same-sex desire, his technically innovative explorations of dark themes and emotions helped forge a film culture that was later to produce the likes of Ingmar Bergman.

Moreover, Stiller's role in shaping one of cinema's great icons should not be underestimated: "Don't bother about your friends," he advised Garbo at the outset of their association. "When I finish with you, you will have no friends, but rather admirers everywhere."

It is not difficult to see, emerging from this almost Wildean bon mot, the Garbo who was to become legendary for wanting "to be alone." Ironically, however, despite some twinges of guilt, one of the earliest friends she learned not to bother with was Stiller himself.

Deborah Hunn


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A portrait of Mauritz Stiller by Arnold Genthe.
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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  European Film

Since the 1960s, European film has included significant gay-themed films, many of them directed by openly gay and lesbian directors.

arts >> Overview:  Film Directors

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual film directors have been a vital creative presence in cinema since the medium's inception over one hundred years ago.

arts >> Garbo, Greta

Mysterious, aloof, occasionally androgynous, actress Greta Garbo ignited the passions of men and women alike.

literature >> Lagerlöf, Selma

Although she only hinted at sexual transgression in her novels, Nobel Prize winner and Swedish Academy member Selma Lagerlöf reflected directly her deep affection for women in her letters.


Gronowicz, Antoni. Garbo: Her Story. New York: Viking, 1990.

Madsen, Axel. The Sewing Circle: Hollywood's Greatest Secret, Female Stars Who Loved Other Women. London: Robson Books, 1996.

Soila, Tytti, Astrid Soderbergh Widding, and Gunnar Iversen, eds. Nordic National Cinemas. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.


    Citation Information
    Author: Hunn, Deborah  
    Entry Title: Stiller, Mauritz  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated May 2, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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