Every so often a film comes along and just rocks your little watching-on-laptop commuter world. On the Gatwick Express last week I’ve been bowled over by a combination of Julius Jaenzon’s cinematography, Mary Johnson’s acting and Mauritz Stiller’s inspiration.
Johnson’s a Scandi-Gish, delicate and pretty with emotions sourced deep within her tiny core, working their way out in great volcanic bursts that shake her very being: like Lillian she acts with her whole being and her frailty is all too real.
She is driven through this film by the promptings of Stiller in what some see as his greatest. I can’t comment having not seen them all, but he comes close to the heights of his more reputable Swedish (Stiller was Finnish) friend and frequent collaborator, Victor Sjostrom in this powerful, claustrophobic meditation on guilt, love and destiny.
Then there is the magnificence of Julius Jaenzon’s camerawork as he captures the intimacies of the wide-open spaces as easily as he does the depths of the shadowy interiors. There’s startling use of moving cameras as he tracks characters at key moments: the guard ascending the prison steps to a conflagration with his three prisoners and the heroine’s pursuit of the truth carried in her lover’s blackened heart. Events swirl around and the hopeless humans drift aimlessly among the frozen stone as they try to outlive their destiny.
It’s a contrast to Thomas Graal’s Best Film you have to admit.
Based on The Treasure by Selma Lagerlöf, the story is smaller than Stiller’s epic adaptation of the same author’s Gosta Berling but there’s the same moral range: Man must make his peace with the ultimate arbiter and there is a price to pay for every bad deed.
|Three bad men|
Here the darkness is not immediately apparent as the three Scottish mercenaries at the heart of the story are seemingly brave and carefree men even when held captive in one of King Johan III’s gaols in seventeenth century Sweden. The men, Sir Archie (Richard Lund), Sir Filip (Erik Stocklassa) and Sir Donald (Bror Berger) lark about in their confinement in high spirits even removed from freedom and their national drink: we’re clearly meant to like them… a sucker punch for what comes next, although there’s further play on our sympathy as the narrative unfolds.
The men escape after bamboozling a dopey guard and make their way across the frozen wastes. They very nearly succumb to sub-zero starvation but manage to find the home of a fishmonger, Torarin (Axel Nilsson) where they rip into their food and drink with animalistic relish as his wife looks on in horror.
|Julius Jaenzon is the man with the movie camera|
The picture shifts to the hall of Sir Arne (Hjalmar Selander) where dinner is in progress. Opposite Sir Arne sits the curate and at the far end of the table sit Sir Arne’s niece Berghild (Wanda Rothgardt) and Elsahill (Mary Johnson), an orphan taken in by the vicar’s household.
Torarin is present and sits without envy at the table of a man whose fortune is alleged to have been looted from the monasteries during the Swedish reformation. The monks had prophesised that the money would only bring ill-fortune and you know they might have been onto something.
Suddenly the meal is disturbed as Sir Arne’s Wife (Concordia Selander) has a vision of men sharpening long knives at Branehog… the table turns in shock at the ill forebodings.
Stiller works his way carefully around the narrative even when proceedings are telegraphed so clearly.
|Mary Johnson and Wanda Rothgardt|
Sir Arne’s house is attacked and set aflame by “three men” and rather than show the incident the director focuses on the devastation of the aftermath after the villagers arrive – too late – to find Berghild mortally wounded on the floor and the entire household slaughtered. All except one… Elsahill emerges from hiding and we see her grief at finding her friends all dead – Johnson radiates pure sorrow and we’re none of us going to recover for the rest of the film.
The men escape across the frozen wastes and there’s a shocking moment when their horse trips into a gap in the ice (no disclaimer about animals being injured during silent filming…) taking their carriage with it. They make off with Sir Arne’s treasure box across the ice and cover their tracks in the hope their pursuers will believe all lost…
But this is no mere crime caper, there re deeper issues at stake and, as Elsahill is taken in by Torarin and his wife, she eventually catches the eye of three foreigners passing away the days as they wait for a ship back to Scotland. They are most anxious to hear her sad tale.
The winter is hard and the boats are all ice bound – the producers actually left a sailing ship to be frozen into the sea over winter – that’s planning! But will the weather clear when the men intend to ship their evil cargo? Meteorology moves in mysterious ways and there’s a cosmic balance in play.
|Archie meets his match: Erik Stocklassa, Richard Lund and Bror Berger|
But, even within the confines of this Christian morality, nothing is clear cut as murderer-in-chief, Sir Archie and Elsahill fall in love. As one realises who the other actually is the two are tortured by conscience – how can she love the man who killed her loved ones and how can he forgive himself for the harm he has caused?
It doesn’t go the way you expect it to go… and raises compelling questions of love and forgiveness.
This is among the most emotional and immersive Swedish silents and is uncompromised by commercial consideration. The cast is strong and the style naturalistic even with Berghild’s ghost illustrating their guilt perhaps more than the supernatural – no doubt Stiller departs from his source in this respect.
Mary Johnson’s tortures dominate the film and her intensity easily clears the bar marked melodramatic as she wrestles with the most conflicting of emotions. Richard Lund’s Sir Archie is not her match even though he meets her halfway in a bizarre love triangle of death, greed and guilt.
I watched the Kino DVD which comes with an emphatic new score from Matti Bye and Frederik Emilson which sweeps along at pace sometimes ahead of the film’s emotional force but always in sympathy. All in all, Sir Arne is a must have digital delight for fans of scandi-silents, you can order your copy here.