Co-directed by Mauritz Stiller, who would assist Garbo to stardom, and Gustaf Molander, who would do the same for Ingrid Bergman, Herr Arnes Pengar is a classic of silent Swedish cinema. In the sixteenth century, three cutthroat Scottish mercenaries escape from their Swedish imprisonment and slaughter a prominent family in the countryside, including the vicar, his wife and daughter, and steal the vicar’s ostensible “treasure,” a chest of silver coins, and burn the vicarage to the ground. Hiding behind “the wall,” foster daughter Elsalill survives, traumatized—and tormented, once she falls in love with Sir Archie, the leader of the gang of mercenaries. It is a snowbound winter, and the criminals cannot leave for Scotland as the ship they would board remains frozen in the ice: a repeated image encapsulating Archie’s need for redemption.
It is questionable that Arne’s “treasure” consists of the loot that, filling the chest to the brim, apparently has never even been touched. Perhaps knowledge of its existence is sufficient to impart financial peace of mind to the vicar. Or is his real treasure something else entirely, which the coins represent?—faith in God, for instance, the farm, or family? Contrasted with the shots of the frozen ship is a shot of the vicar and his family, all minutely animated, at dinner; an interior middle-distance shot, the occupied dinner table is off to the right, thereby underscoring family integrity and solidarity, although, intriguingly, the vicar’s failure to heed his wife’s premonition of disaster—they will be murdered that night—may expose a strain of complacency in his attitude, to which the mutual devotion of the two girls, in an intimate two-shot, further contrasts, while also preparing us for the emotional underpinnings of Elsalill’s dreams of her departed foster sister later on.
With so much to commend this remarkable, visually expressive film, it is a pity that Mary Johnson’s monotonous and unconvincing performance as Elsalill robs it of a place in the first and even the second ranks of cinema. In particular, Johnson seems not to have grasped in the slightest degree the depth of her twice-orphaned character’s trauma, or how the death she engineers for herself, to invite reprisals on Archie, who uses her as a human shield in hopes of eluding capture, is tantamount to a suicide by crucifixion: ironically displaced, the redemption Sir Archie longed for.
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