Kino's release of three films by the important yet neglected Swedish silent director Mauritz Stiller, remembered now mainly for discovering Greta Garbo, is one of the year's major rediscovery efforts.
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 escape from captivity in 16th century Sweden and, driven half-mad by the winter winds and starvation, slaughter 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. The three, newly kitted out in finery, return to the scene of the crime, and one of them promptly falls in love with the survivor of his depredations and starts having guilt of his own.
While there's a stark, In Cold Blood-like quality to the initial depiction of these violent events in a remote, snowbound location, 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 minutely detailed depiction of everyday activities not only makes the historical setting seem vividly real, but serves to cut off the possibility of anything which would make this psychological drama into an action movie.
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 director Mauritz Stiller were 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, yet 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), 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.
A few DVD specific notes: the quality of the early cinematography is very handsome given the quality of 1919-era film stock. The music score is modern in style; I think modern is right to help ensure that the story doesn't come off like Douglas Fairbanks, but I felt that the score did not help the earlier, less effective parts of the film flow, and tended to make the film go in fits and starts. Once the film really kicks into gear, the score is effective. Extras include a short interview with Peter Cowie which quickly sketches some context for the film and Stiller's career. Don't watch it before you watch the film, as it has clips of nearly every significant plot moment.