Snow is inherently cinematic. It forms a white screen, like a Chinese scroll, on which dark forms have the spare eloquence of calligraphy. And while it may suggest peace, it also evokes the burn and sting of cold, giving bite to scenes of extremity and struggle: Lillian Gish, a frail wisp battered by the blizzard in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920); the battle on the frozen lake in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938); the black-clad urban detective chasing a killer through pure snowdrifts in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951).
Few films have captured the stark and deadly beauty of snow better than Mauritz Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure, subtitled A Winter Ballad. Set during a freakishly harsh winter in 16th-century Sweden, it opens with armies tramping through the snow, soldiers on horseback driving prisoners on foot. No less chilling than the scenery, the plot revolves around an atrocity—a kind of medieval In Cold Blood—in which an entire household is slaughtered by a trio of Scottish mercenaries, who steal a chest full of treasure. But this cruel story is told through haunting, runic images: a great house blazing in the snow, a sailing ship trapped in the ice, a ghostly girl, a funeral procession snaking across the frozen sea. True to its subtitle, the film has the feeling of a blood-steeped ballad or epic poem, but it also has moments of emotional subtlety and intimacy, especially as it develops the theme of an innocent young woman’s fatal love for a brutal man.
Sir Arne’s Treasure (Herr Arnes Pengar) was the film that brought Stiller international acclaim, a few years before his discovery of Greta Garbo—the achievement that later cemented his immortality but also brought his career to a premature end. In 1919 he was at his peak, as was the studio where he worked, Svensk Filmindustri, which had just been formed out of a merger between Svensk Biografteatern and Filmindustribolaget Skandia. Under the direction of Charles Magnusson—that rare producer who considered directors to be artists and granted them substantial freedom—Svensk was focused on making fewer and better films, with an emphasis on literary adaptations with historical settings. The studio’s talent included Stiller and his friendly rival, the great actor-director Victor Sjöström, and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Selma Lagerlöf, who collaborated in bringing her books to the screen, including both Sir Arne’s Treasure (based on her 1903 novel The Treasure) and The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924). That film would be Stiller and Garbo’s ticket to Hollywood, a place where Stiller unhappily encountered less deferential producers. Known to be moody and quarrelsome, he never completed a film at MGM, the studio that had brought him over, though he did direct the excellent Hotel Imperial (1927) with Pola Negri at Paramount. Discouraged, he returned to Sweden where he died in 1928, aged only forty-five.
Unlike Gösta Berling, Sir Arne’s Treasure has no world-famous leads; it also has no obvious protagonist. There is Sir Archie (Richard Lund), the youngest and most appealing of the Scottish mercenaries, who woos Elsalill (Mary Johnson), the only survivor of the massacre of Sir Arne’s household. Lund has a brooding, dark-eyed presence that made him a matinee idol in the teens, but he never became well-known outside of Sweden. Johnson, a delicate fair-haired waif, wound up making films in Germany where, in 1932, she married Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the sinister anti-hero of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis. The romance between Archie and Elsalill is deeply disturbing, even in a film that includes a massacre (which we don’t witness) and a shocking scene where the mercenaries drive a horse and sleigh onto a patch of thin ice to dispose of them (animal-lovers, beware). It is a romance between a woman shattered by trauma and a man crushed by guilt, each haunted by the vision of Elsalill’s murdered younger sister, Berghild. The ambiguity and psychological complexity of this relationship are startling—the kind of elements it is tempting to describe as “modern,” though in fact they have always been present, if rare, in popular cinema. After learning the truth about her lover, she is torn between turning him in and, unthinkably, protecting him. He begs forgiveness, claiming that starvation, cold, and drunkenness turned him into a beast; but his remorse doesn’t stop him from using his beloved as a human shield when he is cornered.
Earlier, there is a spine-tingling moment when the dead sister’s spectral image shimmers before him as he caresses Elsalill’s long blonde hair, the first of several appearances by the ghost of Berghild, who also appears to her sister in a dream and leads her to the truth about Archie. This is a world of visions and premonitions, a world in which nature and even inanimate objects are imbued with power, rarely benign. The first time the treasure appears, it glows with an unearthly light; it is said to bring bad luck on its owners, and the seductive beauty is part of that curse. Sitting in the fire-lit hall, Sir Arne’s wife suddenly has an ominous vision of the mercenaries preparing for their attack; from miles away, she hears the sharpening of long knives on a whetstone. The captain of a sailing ship trapped in the ice at Marstrand (looking for all the world like the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s ship, which was locked in and crushed by the ice on an expedition to Antarctica in 1915) paces the deck, brooding over the suspicion that it is the presence of evildoers that keeps the ice from thawing and freeing the harbor. The mercenaries, who have come to the port hoping to sail home to Scotland, are held captive by the judgment of the elements.
The force of nature, in its extremes of savagery and tender renewal, dominates Nordic cinema of the silent era, giving a raw splendor to films like Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), Harald Schwenzen’s Pan (1922), and Axel Lindblom’s The Strongest (1929). And while summer’s sun-dappled forests and breeze-stirred meadows offer sensual pleasure, the natural world is often stony and unforgiving. The bleak final scenes of The Outlaw and His Wife, in which the titular couple, starving in a frigid, cave-like hut, turn on each other viciously, makes the same point as the scene in Sir Arne’s Treasure in which the mercenaries—bearded, ragged, and half-dead from hunger an exposure—invade a poor fisherman’s cottage, where they grab food like wild animals before collapsing into a drunken stupor. There is a winter of the soul, when humanity goes dormant and only base survival remains.
Both of these films were shot by Julius Jaenzon, sometimes billed as J. Julius, a cinematographer known for his mastery of challenging but spectacular locations, of camera movements that fluidly track people in motion, and of optical effects, such as the elaborate ghostly doubling in Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921). His work on Sir Arne’s Treasure includes one of the greatest single shots in silent cinema, in which black-clad village women cross the ice in a somber funeral procession, led by four men in white robes carrying a bier. The simple curve of this dark line as it advances toward the camera defines the depth and emptiness of the frozen wasteland, while the flowing movement, like the first stream of open water splitting the ice, reveals the endurance and dignity of the people who live in it.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble