2019 marks the centennial of this film’s premiere, an event that became a cornerstone in the history of Swedish cinema. This year, the Swedish Film Institute screened digitally restored versions at a festival in Bologna of two movies that director Mauritz Stiller made in 1919, this one and Song of the Scarlet Flower. Both are historically valuable, but it is Sir Arne’s Treasure that has become a silent classic over the years, not least thanks to a very dramatic story by one of Sweden’s greatest authors.
Conspiring against the king
During the reign of the Swedish king John III in the late 16th century, Scottish mercenaries have been hired to serve him. When he learns that they are conspiring against him, he jails its leaders. Three of them, Sir Archie, Sir Philip and Sir Donald (Richard Lund, Erik Stocklassa, Bror Berger), manage to escape and end up in Marstrand, a seaside community in Denmark. Their aim is to find a way back to Scotland across the sea. The three fugitives come across Solberga, a vicarage owned by the wealthy Sir Arne (Hjalmar Selander) who’s said to possess a chest full of coins, treasure seized from monasteries. The fortune is supposedly cursed; premonitions say that one day the money will be Sir Arne’s doom.
That day has arrived in the shape of the mercenaries who attack the family, steal the treasure and set fire to Solberga. The sole survivor is Elsalill (Mary Johnson), the adopted daughter, who ends up in the care of Torarin (Axel Nilsson), a local fisherman. Some time later, Elsalill meets Sir Archie and falls in love without realizing who he is…
Perfect fodder for Stiller
Selma Lagerlöf was inspired by a story she had heard of a certain Sir Arne who was indeed murdered at Solberga in 1586; the novel was published in 1904, five years before she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. The story and its wintry setting became perfect fodder for Stiller and the studio who nurtured an ambition to adapt literary stories that showcased Nordic environs and how men and women struggled in them.
This was an ambitious project for its time, its harsh exteriors filmed at several locations in Sweden, including the north, contributing to a troubled production. The famous climactic scenes were shot outside Stockholm, where a 16th-century-style ship was brought to be frozen in the ice. It was worth the effort; the wintry scenes are among the film’s most compelling, especially that famous sequence where the women of Marstrand form a long, solemn funereal procession across the ice. The tragedy of the story is convincing, even if Lund and Johnson fail to be as memorable as Stiller’s directing touch. He co-wrote the script with Gustaf Molander (who was to become one of Swedish cinema’s most trusted talents over the years) and they remain faithful to the story, illustrating its tragic power in impressive ways; I have a feeling that Ingmar Bergman might have been inspired by this film when he made The Virgin Spring (1960).
The supernatural ingredients may be discreet, but cinematographers Gustaf Boge and Julius Jaenzon lend the film an aura of mystery in scenes that illustrate a foreboding that both Elsalill and Sir Arne’s wife (Concordia Selander) sense; in the latter case, eerily, of knives sharpening.
When it comes to silent movies it is true that we can all have the same experience but to the tune of different soundtracks. For instance, it’s amazing to learn that the Swiss pop artist Hemlock Smith is among the choices if you have a copy of Sir Arne’s Treasure and want to find an appropriate soundtrack.
Sir Arne’s Treasure 1919-Sweden. Silent. 109 min. B/W. Produced by Charles Magnusson. Directed by Mauritz Stiller. Screenplay: Gustaf Molander, Mauritz Stiller. Novel: Selma Lagerlöf ”The Treasure”). Cinematography: Gustaf Boge, Julius Jaenzon. Cast: Richard Lund (Sir Archie), Mary Johnson (Elsalill), Hjalmar Selander (Sir Arne), Wanda Rothgardt, Concordia Selander, Axel Nilsson.
Trivia: Original title: Herr Arnes pengar. Shown in different versions, including one that runs 122 min. The Selanders, who play Sir Arne and his wife, were married in real life. Remade (by Molander) in Sweden as Herr Arnes penningar (1954).