A supernatural silent, Mauritz Stiller's 'Sir Arne's Treasure' receives new musical treatment.

Stiller's 'Sir Arne's Treasure' Brought Back to Life, Musically

Dennis Harvey December 10, 2010

In the annals of Hollywood history nothing invites mythologizing quite like a tragic early death. The story handed down about director Mauritz Stiller—whose 1919 Swedish Sir Arne's Treasure will be shown with live accompaniment from The Mountain Goats at the Castro December 14—is a classic victimized-artist scenario.

It goes thus: Acclaimed European director is imported by MGM, bringing along an unknown actress (one Miss Greta Gustaffson a.k.a. Garbo) for company. Studio realizes it's a lot more interested in the protégé than her mentor, schemes to sever their creative and personal bond, fires him from her star-making movie. Humiliated, he crawls back to Sweden, promptly dying of a broken heart.

Like most such tales from the industry's “Golden Age,” this one has been filigreed over the years until considerable fancy hardened into “fact.” What is true is that Stiller had established himself as one of the world's leading directorial talents—whether MGM appreciated that or not—and after executive Louis B. Mayer saw his 1924 Saga of Gosta Berling, in which Garbo played a support role, both of them were invited to the Southern California studio. (Where it was long believed that Stiller was the avidly sought property, however, scholars now agree that Mayer likely had his contractual eye primarily on the actress all along.) She was rushed into a mediocre but successful first film Stiller was not allowed to direct.

Though neither liked the script—another crude melodrama casting her as a heavy-breathing vamp—he was assigned to her next vehicle, The Temptress. But Stiller, who'd acquired scant English-language skills, clashed with the front office and disliked his leading actor. He was fired mid-production to the great distress of Garbo, who was already grieving a sister's death and was not allowed by MGM to attend the distant funeral. Most of his footage was reshot (by Fred Niblo, fresh off replacing another director on the massive silent Ben-Hur) at great expense.

This was a sorry turn of events. But contrary to popular belief, Stiller did not immediately slink back across the Atlantic in shame. Indeed, MGM's loss was Paramount's gain. That studio eagerly snapped him up for three well-received features: Two with Pola Negri (the Garbo-like imported bombshell of 1923), a third with Emil Jannings and future King Kong squeeze Fay Wray. But in the end he didn't get along with the brass at this company, either.

In 1927 he gave up on Tinsel Town and went back to Sweden. There he surely would have resumed being one of the industry's creative leaders, probably for decades to come, had he not contracted an infection and died of the painful chest malady pleurisy the next year, at age 45.

Stiller's Hollywood career may have fallen short of the triumph it should have been. But the mark he'd already made on Swedish cinema—a significant contributor to the art form in silent days, as it would be again post-WWII—assures his rank amongst the medium's early greats. He was actually born a Finn, of Russian-Polish Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, who left his native land and abandoned a promising stage career in order to escape military draft under the last Czar. (Finland was then officially part of the Russian empire.)

He soon gained entry into the Swedish film industry as actor, writer and director, making a name for himself particularly in the latter role. His first great feature success in 1918 starred Victor Sjöström, another multihyphenate talent whose rise would parallel and equal Stiller's to a point—though Sjöström lived far longer, and his own Hollywood sojourn was more prolific.

That comedy, Thomas Graal's Best Film, was hit enough to warrant a sequel and raise the stakes for Stiller's future projects. One result was the expansive Sir Arne's Treasure, a period tale adapted from a novel by hugely popular Swedish author (and first-ever female literary Nobel Prize winner) Selma Lagerlof, whose works remain oft-adapted for film, TV and stage to this day.

Set in the 16th century, it follows a trio of ne'er-do-well Scottish mercenaries in Sweden. Jailed for conspiring against the Crown, they remain happy-go-lucky enough to be spied playing leapfrog in their cell. After escaping, however, these merry rogues turn out to be devils: Drunk, cold and hungry, they invade a country parson's home and casually murder everyone within, making off with the titular trunk full of loot.

This slaughter's sole survivor is young Elsalill (Mary Johnson), an adopted orphan whose waifish demeanor doesn't preclude her ghoulishly musing “I would like to see [the killers] alive so I could see their bodies cut into pieces.” When those disguised villains turn up again it seems she might get her wish. But before discovering their identity she falls for youngest Scotsman Sir Archi (Richard Lund), who is stricken with remorse after hearing her story. Will love or justice win out? As with many films of the era (not to mention Lagerlof's writings), a heavy dose of Christian ideology determines that outcome.

Though it could easily have turned into unwieldy melodrama, Stiller smoothly guides this tale from rambunctious adventure to tragedy to deus-ex-machina morality drama, weaving in ghostly supernatural elements. It's a skillful balancing act that pulls off some surprising twists, as when one sympathetic character abruptly, brutally uses another as human shield.

Stiller's subsequent Swedish films are a diverse lot, including two that remain his most internationally famous. Erotikon (1920) is a sex comedy of still-startling sophistication that Lubitsch admitted was a significant personal influence. Gunnar Hede's Saga (1923) is a drama with passages paying raptly mystical attention to nature. The aforementioned *Gosta Berling*, from another, better-known Lagerlof novel, is a wildly ambitious picaresque epic originally released in two feature parts, though until its recent restoration was often seen cut to half its three-hour length. While a fair number of Stiller's films have been lost, several among the above-named have become available on DVD in recent years.

The San Francisco Film Society has established a unique 21st-century tradition of inviting indie-rock artists to create original scores for silent classics from around the globe. The roster to date—including Yo La Tengo, American Music Club, The Pixies' Black Francis, Superchunk, Stephin Merritt, Dengue Fever, Jonathan Richman and Lampchop—induces a paranoid suspicion that they have been secretly using my record collection to select talent. But never mind.

The Mountain Goats is/are really one mammal: Native Californian turned North Carolinian singer-songwriter John Darnielle, who since the early ’90s has performed (sometimes solo, sometimes not) and recorded under his chosen moniker. Prolific, verbose, highly personal, yet also terse and often instrumentally minimalist (especially in his early “lo-fi” era), Darnielle's folky pop inspires a passionate fandom you might imagine from The New Yorker's description of his songs as being “like late-night pay phone calls from a lover determined to complete a thought before the quarter runs out.” He promises some guest musicians (including John Vanderslice) at the Castro gig, as well as material borrowed, discarded and/or expanded from his apt 1995 release Sweden and other back-catalog faves.