Director: Mauritz Stiller. Svensk Filmindustri.
Producer: Charles Magnusson.
Camera: Gustav Boge, Julius Jaenzon.
Music: Matti Bye, Fredrik Emilson.
Sets: Axel Esbensen.
Richard Lund, Mary Johnson, Axel Nilsson, Erik Stocklassa, Bror Berger, Hjalmar Selander, Concordia Selander, Wanda Rothgardt, Gustav Aronson, Jenny Ohrstrom-Ebbesen.
In the early 16th century, three Scottish mercenaries led by the young Sir Archie (Lund) escape from their Swedish captors and cause havoc in the local countryside as a vicious winter storm envelops the land. Famished, they chance upon a local vicar Arne (Selander) who is said to possess a large chest of silver coins. They kill him and his family, apart from his beautiful adopted niece Elsalill (Johnson) who hides from them. Sometime later, a distraught Elsalill is taken in by friends of her dead family and is romanced by Sir Archie, who hides his true identity from her.
Stiller was one of two preeminent directors of early Swedish film who helped in no small part to put Scandinavian cinema firmly on the movie map. Whereas his better remembered peer Victor Sjostrom’s oeuvre focused on small, intimate pastoral drama, Stiller concentrated on epic, moralistic action films or sophisticated comedies.
His films are marked by a more lavish and playful style (we open the film with the mercenaries leap-frogging over each other to get a guard’s attention) with an emphasis on technical innovation. Herr Arnes Pengar is no exception, with commendable use of mobile camera in several scenes, impressive visual effects of ghosts communicating with the lead characters and the stunningly filmed finale, in which Elsalill’s mourners clad in funeral black snake their way across a frozen sea to reclaim her body. This particular moment is still breathtaking nearly a hundred years on and influenced other film-makers, such as Erich von Stroheim.
This is a downbeat film, with an emphasis on premonition – the spectral faces of the future haunt Arne’s wife who correctly predicts their part in her family’s downfall. Faces from the past dog those in the present too, as the ghost of Johnson’s adopted sister Berghild spurns her into vengeance whilst also taunting Archie, the man who killed her. Past, present and future are not dissimilar in Stiller’s tale and melt into and out of each other with a bloody, unrelenting fluidity. Even one of the character’s dogs is called ‘Grim’ as if to further underline the depressive elements of the story.
Johnson is a pretty and mournful heroine in a draining turn. She is a lover stricken with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, brooding for a slaughtered family, contemplating an awesome suicide to stitch up the killer she has fallen in love with. This is a subtly powerful piece of acting, delicately delivered, making the emotional punch hit harder.
Lund, an important early romantic lead in Swedish film, also scores with a level-headed performance as the vicious thug redeemed by a good woman.
There are the usual silly, silent movie things that defy belief: Sir Arne might not be the smartest vicar in the parish if he leaves his treasure chest out for all to see. For Elsalill to not put two and two together that the trio of mysterious new men in her neighbourhood might be linked to the three men who killed her family a week previous is a crime in itself, but grief affects us all in different ways.
The spine-tingling score creates just the right atmosphere for a chilling story that is miles away from the first bawdy scenes we are given of soldiers larking about. This is a thriller in all but name and the music complements the murders and duplicity on screen.