Early Scandinavian film: Sir Arne’s Treasure

When somebody is talking about Scandinavian, in particular, Swedish cinema, one usually recalls the recent (or relatively recent, because time flies so fast!) films such as Force Majeure, Millennium trilogy or Let the Right One In. However, I would like to talk about the silent era, an amazingly interesting period and the golden age of Swedish cinema. Here comes the title: Sir Arne’s Treasure. I will not write anything new about it; this article is just a brief reflexion on the place of nature in this movie and the colour technique used in it.

Filmed in 1919, Sir Arne’s Treasure is a literary adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s ghost and crime story. It is indeed a favourable combination, as ghost stories and crime novels have always fascinated readers. An interesting fact is that Lagerlöf’s inspiration comes from the real murder happened in Kungälv (southern Bohuslän) in the 16th century. The story is set out in Marstrand. Three Scottish men heard about the treasure kept in Pastor Arne’s Household. They came to the house in the evening and killed everybody. Only one girl, Pastor’s foster child Elsalill, survived and was adopted by Thorarin, an angler. Soon after this, she met one of the murderers, Sir Archie, and they fell in love without knowing that they have met before. After some time, Elsalill got to know that it was Sir Archie who killed her guardian and his family. Torn between love and duty, she gave Sir Archie and his comrades up to the Watch but tried to help them to escape. An accident happened, and Elsalill died. Sir Archie tried to take her body with him to Scotland, but the ship could not leave because of storm and ice. Only when the murderers were caught, and the women of Marstrand came to the ship and took Elsalill’s body to the town, the ship could finally leave.

Written in 1904, the time of nationalism flourishing in Sweden, the story is full of atmospheric descriptions of Swedish winter nature. Sir Arne’s Treasure’s director Mauritz Stiller, one of the top film directors of silent era, who is especially famous for discovering Greta Garbo (she appears first in his The Story of Gösta Berling, 1924), made the nature the film’s key element calling it “the winter ballad”. The trick Mauritz used is called the Swedish model: the technique of giving freshness to the movies by using local landscapes, in this case Furusund (an island in Stockholm) and northern Uppland. Selma Lagerlöf’s novels, especially Sir Arne’s Treasure, suited the best for this model. The film starts with the credits saying that there was especially cold winter in Sweden at that time, and then the picture of winter forest follows. Winter becomes the story’s basis: human here is alone among snow and ice, all values seem to have been eliminated, which results in the vicious murder of the whole household. The nature does not allow the murderers to escape with the stolen treasure and their victim; the ice would not break holding the ship tight in its cold embrace. The nature – and God – are the main force here that dooms those who acted wrong and honours those who tried to fulfil their duty.

The colours also play an important role in the movie. Although I have to say that the usage of colour filters was not Mauritz’s invention and was added later when the movie was reconstructed in 1950s. In spite of this, I would say that the usage of coloured filters is the innovative thing about Sir Arne’s Treasure, no matter when it was introduced, as it is an extremely interesting thing to be done to a silent film. However, the logic of what colour is used and when is somewhat unclear to me. Blue colour is used for scenes filmed outside and could symbolise winter. It is also used for Elsalill’s dream when she sees the Pastor’s daughter’s ghost. Therefore, it could also symbolise the supernatural powers, which in this story interlace tightly with the nature. (It is worth a brief digression from colour subject to say that Mauritz slightly de-emphasised the supernatural element of the story making the nature the key element as I wrote earlier, while in Lagerlöf’s book these two elements were equally important.) Further, yellow is used for scenes filmed inside and could be linked to warmth. Red is used for the scene of murder and fire. And here comes the white colour (meaning original black-and-white), which is used for scenes outside starting from Act III. At first, one can think that this colour belongs specifically to Elsalill, as it is the colour of purity and innocence – the qualities, which Elsalill possessed. However, it is also used for scenes on the ship (on the deck, outside), first when Thorarin comes to talk to the skipper, and then when the Scottish men are on board. I would say that white here also indicates the turning point of the story: the murder happened, and now the nature is going to punish the miscreants.

To sum up, Sir Arne’s Treasure is something unique among other Mauritz’s movies. While the usage of the so-called Swedish model was common at that time, nature in this movie is used on a much deeper level, highlighting the dramatic quality of the story. And the colour technique represents an innovative feature, which corresponds with the emphasis the director put.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 9
Lina Gordyshevskaya

I was born in Russia, Saint-Petersburg. Graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2015 with the degree of Master of Arts in Scandinavian Studies. The topic of my dissertation was ‘The Development of the Medieval Ballad in Sweden’. My interests lie within the literary art of the Viking Age, medieval ballads, history of the Swedish language and Scandinavian cinema.