Saturday, July 11, 2009


A gem of folkloric fantasy from the silent Swedish cinema. It’s subtitled "A Winter Ballad in Five Acts," and indeed there are title cards separating the action into acts (which adds to the Shakespearian feel of the work). The story takes place in 16th century Sweden, during a particularly bitter winter. Three Scottish mercenaries, under arrest for aiding an uprising, escape from prison, disguise themselves as itinerant tanners, and head for the border to catch a ship home. Along the way, worn out by the powerful winds and snow, they break into the house of fisherman Torarin while he's out, and eat and drink themselves into a stupor. Tossed out of the house and still drunk, they sharpen their knives and go off for some pillaging. At the same time, there is a party in progress at the grand estate of Sir Arne, who has a fortune in silver coins, supposed to have been looted from monasteries and rumored to be cursed. At the height of merrymaking, Arne's wife has a ghostly vision of three men sharpening knives, and she thinks it's a sign of evil to come. Sure enough, the three eventually arrive at Sir Arne's and they proceed to steal the treasure, slaughter the family, and set the whole place on fire. Only the adopted daughter Elsalill survives. Taken in by Torarin and his wife, she is plagued by nightmarish images of the particularly cruel murder of her foster-sister Berghild, killed with a knife to the heart by one of the three, Sir Archie. She curses the men and hopes to rip their hearts from their chests. Unfortunately, when she meets the three, cleaned up and respectable looking, she doesn't recognize them and she falls in love with Archie, and he with her. The three men join a boatload of travelers heading back to Scotland but the ship is icebound and it may be days before they can get out. The skipper tells a tale of a thief on board an icebound ship; once he was driven off the ship, the ice broke up and the weather brightened. (Foreshadowing?) Meantime, the ghost of Berghild leads Elsahil to discover the truth about Archie, and a tragic climax follows.

The snowy landscapes give the film a cold, bleak look, and the supernatural elements of dreams, omens, and otherworldly spirits are worked into the weave of the film's world quite well. For the most part, the acting is not of the exaggerated style that we associate with silent films, and the look of the movie, with its moving camera and location shooting, is striking, especially a famous scene near the end of a funeral procession across the ice. Directed by Mauritz Stiller, best known now as the discoverer of Greta Garbo. The modern score on the Kino DVD is fine, and includes some nifty sound effects, such as wind, fire, and knife-sharpening. If you're a fantasy fan, check this one out, and don’t let the silent Swedish stuff keep you away. [DVD]

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