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The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage(1921)


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Whoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve is doomed to drive Death's carriage for the next year, collecting the souls that pass on and carrying them to the afterlife.

This bit of folklore is the narrative conceit on which The Phantom Carriage rests. It opens as a supernatural tale -- part ghost story and part religious fable -- but soon reveals itself as a tragedy.

"Send for David Holm," asks the dying Edit (Astrid Holm, looking saintly in her suffering), a devoted and dedicated Salvation Army sister with consumption. She's surrounded and worried over by everyone but David (Victor Sjöström), a shameless drunkard who refuses to attend her and remains (ominously and fittingly) in a graveyard to swap stories to his carousing buddies. He drinks to George (Tore Svennberg), the swell of a crook who made David what he is today and the man who told him of the legend of Death's driver. Both will visit David before the night is over, taking him on a kind of ride through his past, a spin on A Christmas Carol with George as his Jacob Marley and David as a wretch of a Scrooge. His legacy is measured in the misery he caused and the lives he destroyed and he's forced to watch the cruelty of his life on the eve of his death.

Directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, the father of Swedish cinema, from the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage is one of the masterpieces of Swedish cinema and its reputation is well deserved. Where most of the great Swedish classics of the era were sweeping sagas set in the rugged landscape of grand outdoors (such as Gosta Berling's Saga and Sjöström's own The Outlaw and his Wife), The Phantom Carriage is an intimate work created in the controlled environment of the studio. Where the sagas were visually muscular and set against vast natural landscapes, this is delicately-crafted, carefully lit and composed and performed with an understated intensity, in particular Sjöström himself as the reprobate David. The once responsible family man changes into a reckless ne'er do well who corrupts his young brother and terrorizes his wife and children and then slips even slips into complete misanthropy as a bitter and vengeful drifter searching every small town to find his runaway wife. When Sister Edit, the idealistic young officer in the Salvation Army posted to a small rural town, determines to redeem David when he comes looking for a bed, he responds with contempt and cruelty. Sjöström's restrained performance makes David all the more terrifying. His brooding manner and sneering looks communicate quiet disdain and a vicious misanthropic streak (a consumptive, he freely coughs in the faces of the healthy "to finish them off quicker") until he loses himself in drink, when his anger spills out into violence.

The special effects of The Phantom Carriage aren't necessarily groundbreaking - they are refinements of ideas and techniques dating back to the fantastic shorts of George Melies - but they are designed and executed with both professional sophistication and visual grace. The double-exposure technique lets the viewer see through the images of the carriage, the driver and the souls of the dead, making them immaterial phantoms against the solid imagery of the material world, while Sjöström stages the scenes in layers. The ghosts don't just exist apart from the world, they interact within it, disappearing behind buildings and rocks. And it's not simply a matter of photographic tricks. Sjöström directs with an otherworldy grace, directing his shrouded reaper with a haunting dignity and the scenes of souls rising from bodies of the dead with a gentle but ominous power. In one scene, the carriage wades into the surf and to the bottom of the sea where the soul of a drowned man floats up, as if swimming through the scene. Like F.W. Murnau in Nosferatu and Fritz Lang in Der Mude Tod, Sjöström adds a dramatic sophistication to the tricks of Melies and others, bringing special effects into the fold of the cinematographic arts.

The Phantom Carriage was an international hit and proclaimed a masterpiece and its success brought Hollywood calling. In a couple of years, Sjöström was making films for MGM, bringing his distinctive dramatic sensibility and intensity and his visual style to the Hollywood machine and turning out popular and critical hits. Today he's best known as an actor: the old man of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries. Sjöström was a mentor to Bergman and this was the young director's tribute to the old man. The long-awaited American home video debut of The Phantom Carriage reminds us why Bergman revered Sjöström. Even if you are familiar with Sjöström's great American films, such as He Who Gets Slapped and The Wind, The Phantom Carriage is a revelation, a 1921 feature that feels years ahead of its time and one of the most nuanced, haunting and richly realized dramas of the silent era.

Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray release is digitally mastered at 2K resolution from a lightly-tinted print struck from a 1975 restoration by the Swedish Film Institute. It features recreated Swedish intertitles with English subtitles provided by Criterion. I'm not well versed in the technical side of things but, considering the age of the film (it was released 90 years ago!), this is a gorgeous-looking disc. The image shows age-related wear (minor scuffing and scratching) but it has been nicely cleaned up and shows no major damage, and the sharpness brings out a tremendous amount of detail, something that still amazes me when watching Blu-ray releases of silent films. Before Blu-ray, this kind of detail was impossible to experience outside of big-screen showings of archival and restored 35mm prints, and it is a reminder that the art of cinematography was a hallmark of silent cinema.

Features commentary by film historian Casper Tybjerg and a choice of two scores: a lyrical and lovely score by composer/pianist Matti Bye performed by a nine-piece chamber orchestra (my preference), and a more unconventional score by the experimental duo KTL. The generous collection of supplements includes a 16-minute interview clips of Ingmar Bergman discussing director Victor Sjöström and the film (excerpted from the 1981 documentary "Victor Sjöström: A Portrait") and Peter Cowie's original visual essay "The Bergman Connection," which examines the film's influence on Bergman. Also features archival footage of the construction of Rasunda studio (where the film was shot) and a booklet with an essay by Paul Mayersberg.

For more information about The Phantom Carriage, visit The Criterion Collection.

by Sean Axmaker