A primal conflict between love and revenge is the theme of Mauritz Stiller’s great saga of Sweden from 1919.
The silent era in Europe is still a largely unexplored treasure house of film, and among the foremost nations in cinema was Sweden, where for a brief time innovations there rivaled those taking place in America. The brilliant young Mauritz Stiller brought sophistication and technical mastery to his movies, although today he’s better known, if at all, for having discovered Greta Garbo, with whom he went to Hollywood, ultimately failing to fit into the rigid hierarchy of the studio system and returning to Sweden, where he fell ill and died in 1928, at the much too early age of 45. Today I offer one of Stiller’s great Swedish films, from 1919, called Sir Arne’s Treasure.
Here’s the story: in 16th century Sweden, a rebellion of the King´s Scottish guards is put down. Three of the rebels make a daring escape from a prison tower, but on their way through the snow to a fishing village where they hope to find a ship, extreme cold and hunger drives them mad with desperation. When they come to the mansion of Sir Arne, a wealthy nobleman, they murder him and his family, steal the treasure, burn the castle down, and escape. But a girl named Elsalill (played by Mary Johnson) survives the carnage by hiding. Years later, adopted and living in a different town, Elsalill falls in love with the noble young lord Sir Archi, played by Richard Lund, unaware that he was one of the murderers.
Stiller was already a veteran director when he adapted this Selma Lagerlof story to the screen, and it is a masterful work, as advanced in technique as anything that had been seen at the time, albeit on a smaller scale than D.W. Griffith´s epics. He makes extensive use of the moving camera, which was rare, and his habit of cutting into the middle of an action creates an effect more modern than in most silent films. The scene in which neighbors rush to the burning castle brilliantly conveys chaos and terror. Over the entire film, in fact, there hangs a mood of ominous fatefulness and “the uncanny,” exemplified by marvelous sequences in which the young woman dreams of her dead sister. In addition, Stiller handles Elsalill´s love for the Scottish nobleman poignantly, yet with very little sentimentality. Unexpectedly, and quite movingly, these troubled characters do not behave as we would expect in a melodrama, but in a more convincing and ultimately more tragic manner.
Shot by Jules Jaenzon, Sweden´s preeminent cinematographer, Sir Arne´s Treasure is an uncommonly gorgeous motion picture. The ending scene with the procession across the ice is among the most haunting and beautiful in all of cinema. It’s both exciting and instructive to see how a pioneer could create fully realized visual poetry in those early days.
Sir Arne’s Treasure is available on DVD.