(Sir Arne's Treasure)
Director: Mauritz Stiller
Production: Svenska Biografteatern; black and white; running time: 100 minutes (78 minutes at 18 f.p.s.); length: 5,226 feet. Released 1919.
Screenplay: Gustav Molander, Mauritz Stiller, from the novel by Selma Lagerlöf; photography: Julius Jaenson; art directors: Harry Dahlstrom, Alexander Bako; costumes: Axel Esbensen.
Cast: Mary Johnson ( Elsalill ); Richard Lund ( Sir Archy ); Hjalmar Selander ( Sir Arne ); Concordia Selander ( Arne's Wife ); Wanda Rothgardt ( Berghild ); Erik Stocklassa ( Sir Philip ); Bror Berger ( Sir Donald ); Axel Nilsson ( Torarin ); Gustaf Aronson ( Ship's Captain ); Stina Berg ( Innkeeper ); with Dagmar Ebbeson, Gösta Gustafsson.
Idestam-Almquist, Bengt, Den Svenska Filmens Drama: Sjöström och Stiller , Stockholm, 1938.
Hardy, Forsyth, Scandinavian Film , London, 1951.
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Film Daily , 11 December 1921.
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O'Leary, Liam, in Films and Filming (London), August 1960.
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Short Review, in Télérama (Paris), no. 2354, 22 February 1995.
* * *
Nineteen-hundred and nineteen was a good year for cinema: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , Lubitsch's Madame Dubarry , Griffith's Broken Blossoms and Gance's J'accuse . From Sweden came what is probably Mauritz Stiller's best film, Herr Arnes Pengar . Based on Selma Lagerlöf's story this "winter ballad" won universal acclaim for its sensitive artistry and technical skill.
The sophisticated and authoritarian Stiller evoked the mood and feeling of sixteenth-century Sweden in the reign of John the Third. Set in a ravaged landscape during a severe winter, it tells of the activities of three mercenary Scottish officers who have escaped from prison after their armies have been banished by the king. Crazed by hunger and drink, they set fire to the parsonage of Solberga and murder all but one of the family, the adopted child Elsalill. Laden with the treasure they have stolen, they escape across the ice. By a quirk of fate Elsalill unknowingly falls in love with Sir Archy, one of the three murderers. On discovering his guilty secret, she is persuaded to denounce him to the town guard. Using her as a shield, he escapes his would-be captors but Elsalill diverts a spear-thrust meant for him to herself. At last a ship that will take him home is reached although it is still frozen in the bay. He sits beside Elsalill's body until the guards arrive to seize the guilty men. The people of Marstrand file across the frozen harbour and carry the body of Elsalill back to the town. With the evil-doers removed, the ice binding the ship melts and it sails into the open sea.
The dramatic structure is such that suspense is ever present and the doomed love affair moves to its tragic close in a deeply felt visual treatment. The camera is used most effectively to create a series of unforgettable images with taste and discretion. The moving camera is used sparingly while the iris "in and out" is used both for emphasis and smooth transition in the advancement of the story.
The snowy Swedish landscape dominates the film. The dwellings and the behaviour of the people have an air of authenticity. The texture of the costumes is a feature of the sensitive camerawork. A historical period is convincingly brought to life.
There is a dark occult motivation in the film, too, which plays a considerable part: the vision of the parson's wife before the attack: "Why are they sharpening knives at Branehög?" Elsalill's dream leads her to the tavern where she hears Sir Archy and his companions talking about their loot from the parsonage. The fisherman Torarin's dog, Grim, senses the evil that is near.
Visually the film is very impressive, especially in the scenes of the escape of the murderers across the ice, laden with their ill-gotten treasure chest. The great finale of the procession of the Marstranders across the frozen harbour to the ship must have influenced Eisenstein's treatment of the procession of the people of Moscow to Ivan the Terrible at Alexandrov. The film owes much to the camerawork of Julius Jaenson, a valued collaborator in the great films of Stiller and Sjöström.
Mary Johnson as Elsalill gives a memorable performance and was moulded by Stiller for the role in the same way he was later to introduce Garbo to the screen. Stiller was an autocratic director and made difficult demands on his players. The physical conditions involved in the production did much to give a painful realism to the film, and the winter hazards encountered during production became part of the mise-en-scène.
The film won critical acclaim outside its country of origin. English critics, for example, could say: "It is notable for its very advanced and original technique as for its brilliant acting it is a credit to the art of the film." And again, "It stands out clearly amongst the greatest of screen productions. It is great art." Certainly it is one of the greatest adornments of the Golden Age of Swedish cinema.