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A couple is brutally murdered in the working-class district of Paris. Later on, the narrative follows the lives of their two daughters, both in love with a Parisian thug and leading them to separate ways.
Three Scottish officers, including Sir Archi, murder Sir Arne and his household for a coffin filled with gold. The only survivor is Elsalill, who moves to relatives in Marstrand. There she meets a charming young officer - Sir Archi, and she soon understands that he was one of the murderers. She is in a classic dilemma between her love for Sir Archi and justice. Written by
Powerful costume drama of guilt with a side of gloom
As a title in film history books, Sir Arne's Treasure always seemed like it must fall somewhere between Die Nibelungen and Ivanhoe-- an epic knightish adventure with a heavier Scandinavian feel. In fact it's a tale of guilt and doom in the classic Swedish mode, almost a chamber piece despite its grandiose division into five acts, set in an historical setting but with some of the same distilled focus and sense of inevitability as, to pick a recent example, Cronenberg's A History of Violence.
Three Scottish mercenaries (the main one, incongruously, given the jaunty name "Sir Archie"; happily his compatriots are not Sir Reggie and Sir Jughead) escape from captivity in 16th century Sweden and, driven half-mad by the winter winds and starvation, wind up slaughtering the entire household of a local lord for his treasure. Only one young, Lillian Gish-like girl, Elsalill, who hides herself during the crime, escapes-- but, being Swedish, is consumed by survivor's guilt.
This being one of those stories (like Crash or Dickens' Bleak House) where there are only eight different people in the entire country, the three, newly kitted out in finery, return to the scene of the crime and Sir Archie promptly falls in love with the survivor of his depredations and starts having guilt of his own. I'm betting you can pretty much guess how that's going to work out for the gloomy couple.
The initial acts of Sir Arne's Treasure take a little mental adjustment, as there's what we might call a high Guy Maddin quotient here, of over-the-top Nordic gloom-- the old crone (Mrs. Sir Arne) repeatedly shrieking "Why are they sharpening the knives at Brorhaven?" at the dinner table, the use of the phrase "fish wench" in a title, or a ship captain who believes that his ship is frozen in ice as God's punishment for some big crime he can't QUITE put his finger on.... The latter in particular shows the heavily moralistic hand of Selma Lagerlof (who also wrote Gosta Berling, The Phantom Chariot, etc.), who was good at setting up ripping plot mechanics but tended to impose a Victorian religious sensibility which you don't see in the best Swedish films, such as Sjostrom's The Outlaw and His Wife.
While there's a stark, In Cold Blood-like quality to the depiction of these violent events in a remote, snowbound location, we're impressed by the dramatic quality of the events themselves, not by any human sympathy that has particularly been built up for the characters to that point. And it is easy to see why distributors in other countries succumbed to the temptation to trim the film down, as Stiller allows many of the events to play out in real time, even when relatively little is going on.
It's when the film narrows its focus to the two main characters and their guilt-racked interactions that Stiller's deliberate storytelling begins to really justify itself-- the film is like the long walk to the electric chair in a Cagney movie from that point on, and the minutely detailed depiction of everyday activities not only makes the historical setting seem vividly real, but serves to cut off the possibility of outlandish movie-style heroics which will bring the story to any end other than the inevitable tragic one (which, nevertheless, contains a couple of shocking turns which wouldn't have passed muster for Errol Flynn at Warner Brothers in 1938).
Mention must be made (as theater reviewers say when they can't think of a better transition) of the cinematography of Julius Jaenzon, who pretty much shot everything that was anything in Swedish silent cinema. The word inevitably attached to Jaenzon's work is "landscape," which is to say, he and Stiller and Sjostrom were all masterful at using the forbidding country they lived in to help set the emotional tone of their scenes. When they want you to feel that someone's lonely, they stick him out walking on an icy fjord and by God, he's LONELY.
Also, as we all know, the moving camera as an expressive device (rather than just a way of showing off your fancy set, as in Intolerance) wasn't invented until The Last Laugh in 1924, so we can all throw out those pages of our film history books since one of the most striking things about this film is the extensive use of the moving camera throughout. Since the moving camera tends to imply the presence of the director and thus to deny the possibility of free will for the characters (which is why it works so well in things like noirs, or Max Ophuls' adaptations of Schnitzler, or Kubrick movies about unstable hotel caretakers being taken over by malevolent ghosts), it's a perfect artistic choice for this story, and one that strongly reinforces the atmosphere of destiny and doom while also keeping our focus on the mental state of characters who remain front and center within the shot, rather than on how they physically move from one place to another within a shot.
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