Apparently silent movies are back in fashion again – at least in the frontline countries of cinema. Sweden will have to wait until next year to watch Hugo and The Artist, which both have silent film themes.
So what is a film buff in this remote part of the world to do while waiting for them to arrive? Should I stick to the SO yesterday assortment of ordinary 3D movies (if it’s in 3D, you could at least expect it to be about silent film, right?) Or should I watch silent films on Youtube? There are quite a few there, at least short ones, even though they sometimes come with pretty annoying commenting voiceovers from people who don’t trust us to be smart enough to understand them anyway.
In the end I did neither.
It turned out that my local film club could fix it for me. Last week they celebrated their 75th anniversary and they wanted to do it with style, showing one of the first movies they ever showed once again, namely Sir Arne’s Treasure from 1919.
There aren’t many Swedes who have earned the honor of getting a star on the walk of fame, but the silent movie director Mauritz Stiller is one of them. Maybe they were grateful that he discovered the to-be iconic movie star Greta Garbo. But it could also be that they recongnized that he was an artist. Judging from Sir Arne’s Treasure I think he was.
I’m by no means a fan or an expert in silent films (this was as a matter of fact probably the first full-length one I watched, at least from what I can remember.) But I have to tell you: this one was good. I didn’t just think it was good in the nostalgic sense, the way you think about objects exposed in a museum. It wasn’t just a historical artifact. I found myself drawn into the movie for real.
Taking place in the 17th century, it tells the story about how three Scottish mercenaries wandering around in the countryside murder an entire household to get access to a coffin of gold. One witness survives, the poor girl Elsalill. She ends up falling in love with Sir Archie, one of the mercenaries. A shitload of guilt will follow, where Sir Archie and Elsalill take turns in being most depressed at the entire situation. Elsalill can’t give in Sir Archie and she can’t live with herself unless she does. All that can come out of it is misery. And miserable it is.
More than the story, it’s the footage that creates the mood of Sir Arne’s Treasure. Never before have I seen a winter on screen as cold as here. It’s not the kind of winter you fake in a studio. It’s the real thing, Scandinavia at its toughest, unaffected by possible recent changes in the climate.
Throughout the movie the powers of nature and of destiny are in action. A nameless pagan God has decided to keep the sea frozen as long as the murderers go free so they can’t escape to Scotland. Stiller lets the powerful images speak for themselves and keep the interrupting explanatory text signs to a minimum. Their main purpose seems to be to introduce new characters including the name of the act or, which looks a little odd for the modern viewer.
The people on the screen speak through their body language. We can see them moving their lips, but there are rarely signs that tell us exactly what their lines are. And there’s no need to. We can figure out pretty well what they must have said.
And somehow this room that silent movie leaves for your own imagination to fill in adds something. It makes it a little bit more involving and interactive than an ordinary movie. It’s a bit like reading a novel where you make your own images and participating in creating the story in your own head.
Not only did I get to see a silent movie on a big screen in a genuine old theatre that has been restored to its original shape. I also watched it with live music, which obviously brought the enjoyment I had to yet another level.
For one night I found myself at the bleeding edge, watching the trendiest of the trendy in the world of film of 2011. The bleeding edge of a silent movie. Who would have thought that?
Sir Arne’s Treasure (Herr Arnes pengar, Mauritz Stiller, SWE 1919) My rating: 4/5