Herr Arnes pengar
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 21 July 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
Reviews: The Saga of Gösta Berling
Praise for Swedish silent film has always been a given for any general history of world cinema; take Mark Cousins’ recent The Story of Cinema as a good example:
[T]he early films of Swedish directors… captured natural landscapes with a still, radiant grace, and themes of destiny and mortality were addressed with a maturity beyond that of contemporaneous directors.
But the chances of seeing examples of this work, and in particular that of Sweden’s two star directors of the day, Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, are few and far between, so that Kino’s release on DVD of three of Stiller’s films—Sir Arne’s Treasure, Erotikon, and The Saga of Gösta Berling, from 1919, 1920, and 1924 respectively—presents an invaluable opportunity. This is particularly as the first of these, Sir Arne’s Treasure, is a simply magnificent piece of silent filmmaking.
Sjöström has always been the more famous of the two directors, although by now this is probably more for his starring role in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries than for the films he directed himself. By all accounts an affable and appealing man with the matinée-idol looks appropriate to his start in the Swedish film industry as an actor, Sjöström’s career was certainly more successful than Stiller’s (the two of them started directing in 1912), particularly after both moved to Hollywood in the early 1920s. Sjöström (with his name Americanised to “Seastrom”) flourished in Hollywood, making nine films including The Scarlet Letter and The Wind, two of the greatest American films of the late silent period, whereas Stiller’s time in America was a disaster.
It’s tempting to read the common outsider-figure of Stiller’s films (for example, the Scottish mercenaries of Sir Arne’s Treasure, the defrocked priest Gösta Berling) as a reflection of Stiller himself. We can see this outsider status in terms both of nationality and of personal/social relations, in his Finnish origins and his apparently difficult personality and irascible temperament. The morose look to any photographs of him seems to mark him out as a man apart and a presage, perhaps, of his own fate. After his unrewarding time in Hollywood, he returned to Sweden, but to make no more films; instead he died an early death at the age of 45.
But Sir Arne’s Treasure represents Stiller at the height of his powers, and it’s a high point of the Swedish silent cinema, too. The story’s adapted from a novel by Swedish Nobel Literature laureate Selma Lagerlöf and, while aiming at a complexity of characterisation, keeps the plot-line straight and clear (in spite of some sophisticated oblique narrative strategies, for example the delayed exposition of the massacre of Sir Arne’s household) in a way that makes for effective silent filmmaking. This contrasts with the later Saga of Gösta Berling, also from a Lagerlöf novel, which drowns in a multitude of often-confusing novelistic characters and plots.
The film also has some surprising facts to reveal about an obscure part of Swedish history, principally that Scottish mercenaries were operating there in the sixteenth century in the hire of King Johan III. The film opens with the mercenaries’ leaders, Sir Philip, Sir Donald (whose name in the intertitles later mutates to Sir Reginald), and Sir Archie, imprisoned as the king fears a conspiracy on their part. They escape to the ice-bound coast, awaiting a ship to take them home to Scotland, on the way massacring the household of the vicar Sir Arne and stealing his “treasure”, a chest of coins looted from large monasteries (one guesses that Protestant Sweden went through the same process as England, with the wealth of the monasteries being “redistributed” on their being closed down).
As the three mercenaries wait for the ice to melt and allow their escape, Sir Archie, the youngest and most sympathetic of these Scottish anti-heroes, falls in love with Elsahill, the sole survivor of the massacre, with the true identity of each being unknown to the other. The film climaxes with Elsahill’s discovery of who Sir Archie really is and the conflict within her between her love for Archie and her desire for vengeance, especially on behalf of her foster-sister and Sir Arne’s niece, Berghild.
This is a film of primal violence, of elemental nature, of dreams and visions, and of a serious and fatalistic belief in the workings of God behind the events unfolding before us. The brutality of the mercenaries is never glossed over. Stiller gives us a long-held shot of the strangling of the prison guard, and there’s a palpable sense of bloody violence in what we see of the massacre of Sir Arne’s household: first, the house going up in flames as the mercenaries escape with the treasure chest; then, the subsequent revelation of the dead bodies as the townspeople arrive.
Then there’s the killing of Elsahill herself. This comes after Elsahill’s conflicted response to her discovery of Archie’s identity, first denouncing him to the town authorities, then running off to warn him. Archie’s reaction also swings from one extreme to the other. He pushes her violently away, then slumps despondently in his chair. He has already spoken of her in almost religious/spiritual terms, as the means by which his “torment” can be released and he can be redeemed, and he is embittered by the sense that his trust has been betrayed.
But he claims he is no longer the violent and brutal mercenary (he was the one who killed Berghild) and promises to protect her; yet, when the town guards arrive to capture him, he picks up Elsahill’s body and rushes out to use it as a shield. The low-angle shot of the guards massing above with the light behind them cuts to a reverse high-angle one of their tussle with Archie below, climaxing with a pike piercing Elsahill’s body. It’s an ironic mirror-image of Archie and Elsahill’s first meeting, he coming from up above, she standing down below outside Torarin’s cottage; with hindsight we can read this as a premonition of the death Archie will bring her.
There’s a striking scene, prior to the massacre, of the mercenaries sharpening their knives, which is then superimposed on a shot of Sir Arne’s wife at dinner. In a trance-like state she “hears” the sound of the knives at a distance, her own premonition of the violence to come. It is not the only premonition—Torarin’s dog howls at the mention of Sir Arne’s vicarage at Solberga—but it forms the first of three important visions in the course of the film. Later, as Sir Archie trudges across the ice after visiting the ship’s captain, he is pursued by a superimposed image of the murdered Berghild. And finally, the key to Archie’s identity is given to Elsahill in a dream where the ghost of Berghild leads her to the tavern the mercenaries are staying at.
These supernatural elements are part of the general sense the characters have that spiritual forces are at work behind the scenes. The massacre of almost Sir Arne’s entire household can be read as the fruition of a prophesy that his treasure, the loot of monasteries, would only bring ill fortune. The ship’s captain, waiting for the ice to release his vessel from its grip, talks of God’s hand in the ice that’s locking them in, relating a similar occurrence where the ice only began to melt on the capture of some local murderers. This is the sense here, too. While the mercenary killers remain free, they and everyone else on the coast are trapped here awaiting release, a release that only comes after Elsahill’s self-sacrifice and the armed defeat of the mercenaries. When Sir Archie tells his men to surrender with the words “This is the will of God”, his fatalism is the fatalism of the film and of the film’s characters.
The Swedish silent cinema is famed for its integration through location shooting of the world of nature into the texture of its films, and Sir Arne’s Treasure is a superb example of this. Location shooting seems to have been extensive, and there’s an added depth to the film given by the kind of realistic details that could never be obtained in the studio. You can see this for example in the scene where Archie and Elsahill first meet, in the way the breeze lightly blows the feathers on the mercenaries’ caps and the strands of Elsahill’s hair. These finely-textured details enhance the depth of characterisation already in the film and draw the viewer even further into the world of the story.
Stiller (working with Sweden’s great silent cinematographer Julius Jaenzon) repeatedly presents us with striking images set in this wintry natural world: the opening shot of the snow-laden trees and the succeeding long-shot of horsemen moving across the snow; the ship locked in the ice; Torarin’s sleigh travelling across the broad expanse of ice towards the ship, or Sir Archie’s trudge across the ice from it; and the funeral procession at the end, the thin line of black figures bearing Elsahill’s funeral bier across the snow and ice.
Yet this pictorial beauty in the outdoor location shots is merely one aspect of the sophisticated sense of composition throughout the film. There’s a consistent motif of positioning the action within frames inside the shot, these internal frames being formed by doors, hallways, archways, and so on. And there’s some marvellously fluid camerawork. In his video introduction, Peter Cowie rightly praises the splendid scene at the beginning of the film where the camera tracks backwards in front of a guard patrolling a semi-circular corridor; and there’s a wonderful tracking shot which follows alongside the three mercenaries out walking in the open air, then, when the three men stop, continues moving, leaving them behind, and pans down to Elsahill and Torarin’s mother waiting down below.
But Sir Arne’s Treasure is above all a film of snow and ice, elements that are made, through the location shooting, physically present in scene after scene, in the smallest details like the real snow falling outside the tower as the mercenaries make their escape, or the snow and ice on the ship’s captain as he stands on deck. With the early shot of the frozen sea, the film locks us in to this world as much as the protagonists, and the final images of this splendid film are a release too for us, with the images of the storm, the funeral procession, the breaking-up of the ice, and the final shot of the choppy but ice-free sea.