The Phantom Carriage
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Victor Sjöström gained his greatest international fame as the star of Wild Strawberries, the 1957 classic by Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, where Sjöström played Dr. Isak Borg, an aging medical professor looking back on his professionally rich but personally loveless life. As a renowned actor almost eighty years old, Sjöström was perfect for the part. But another reason for Bergman's casting choice was his lifelong attachment to Sjöström's most highly acclaimed film: The Phantom Carriage, produced in 1921 and still regarded as Sjöström's most dazzling achievement. "My relationship with [it] is very special," Bergman said of the movie he watched every year for decades. "I was fifteen years old when I saw it for the first time" and it became "one of the major emotional and artistic experiences of my life." It certainly influenced some of Bergman's films, especially his 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal, in which Death carries off the living much as he does in Sjöström's earlier meditation on this mournful, universal subject.
The Phantom Carriage, originally titled Körkarlen or "Driver," begins on New Year's Eve, but little is festive about what's going on. A young charity worker lies dying of tuberculosis, and her last wish is that a man named David Holm be brought to her bedside. David is nowhere to be found, and when we see his wife at their poverty-stricken home, which is more like a barn than a comfortable dwelling, we understand that whoever Holm turns out to be, he's certainly no responsible family man. Sure enough, he's one of the local drunks, welcoming the new year with a couple of drinking buddies in the local cemetery. Joining their celebration, we hear David relate a frightening story to his friends. Day in and day out, he tells them, Death's messenger rides about on a carriage to gather up souls whose time has come. The horse and carriage are always the same, but at the start of every year a new coachman is destined to replace the old one and the dead soul who must take over the task is the very last person to die on New Year's Eve, expiring just as the clock strikes midnight. This is why he's always gloomy at the end of the year, David concludes, and it explains why he's terrified of dying on that fateful holiday.
No sooner has David finished his story than a fight breaks out between his friends, and in the brawl David is killed by a deadly blow to his head. Sure enough, Death's coachman comes calling just as David feared, hoisting his soul from his body and tossing it into his carriage. Riding alongside the supernatural messenger whose job will soon be his, David sees that it's his old friend Georges, the very man who lured David into a wild and rowdy life before his own death a year ago. Much of the film now unfolds in flashbacks, as David remembers how his reprehensible behavior destroyed his own promise and brought misery to people he once loved, including a brother who became a drunken murderer and a wife who had to run away from him for safety. The climax arrives when Georges brings David to witness the impending death of his innocent family, while in another place disease saps the strength of the young charity worker who never lost hope that someday David might redeem himself. The overall shape of the story is similar to that of Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol, with David Holm as the Ebenezer Scrooge who must revisit sorry episodes of his life to learn where he went wrong and how to correct his course.
Sjöström started his career as a comic actor, but he was a serious man at heart, and this shows through in his writing, acting, and directing. Although it's obviously a fantasy, The Phantom Carriage deals directly with social problems in the real world, and Sjöström hung out in the Stockholm slums as part of his research. The strongest influence on his style here was clearly the German expressionist movement, which produced such classic supernatural dramas as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's multi-story Destiny in 1920 and 1921. Sjöström's film also has much in common with those of D.W. Griffith around this time, such as Broken Blossoms and True Heart Susie (both 1919), which likewise fill carefully framed compositions with authentic human details that blend realistic and poetic elements. Silent-film buffs will see resemblances to French impressionist movies as well the great Louis Delluc admired Sjöström very much and The Phantom Carriage influenced many later films, from the expressionist Waxworks in 1924 to the naturalistic Joyless Street in 1925. Sjöström spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn, and in addition to making a long list of Swedish films, he came to Hollywood in 1923, modified his name to Victor Seastrom, and built a flourishing career at MGM, directing Lillian Gish in the emotional 1928 melodrama The Wind, among other pictures. Rather than adapt his directing techniques to sound movies, he eventually returned to Sweden and put much of his energy into stage productions before his death in 1960, three years after Wild Strawberries introduced him to a whole new public.
Fans of modern horror films may not find The Phantom Carriage very horrific, with its convoluted structure, deliberate pace, and old-fashioned special effects. Sjöström's main technique for showing the supernatural is to superimpose see-through images over realistic backgrounds, which always reminds me of a movie critic I knew who joked that actors get paid less for scenes where they're only transparent. Today the device seems corny, but Sjöström handles it beautifully. As always with well-made silent movies, this one is very rewarding if you take it on its own terms, adjusting your expectations and allowing it to unfold in its own spooky way. Some of its pleasures are things Sjöström never planned or anticipated; the first time I saw it, for instance, The Shining hadn't been made yet, but now I get an extra kick when David Holm violently chops through a door to terrorize his family just like Jack Nicholson in the 1980 film.
Silent movies were almost always accompanied by live music in their own day, and when the Swedish Film Institute restored The Phantom Carriage to excellent condition in 1998, working from an original color-tinted print, a new score was added that reinforces the picture's atmosphere of creepiness and danger. Looking back on his films as an old man, Sjöström didn't think they were all that special. "He mostly saw the failings," Bergman wrote in his autobiography, "and was annoyed by his own sloppiness and lack of skill." No one who watches The Phantom Carriage with an open mind is likely to share that opinion.
Director: Victor Sjöström
Screenplay: Victor Sjöström, based on the novel by Selma Lagerlöf.
Cinematographer: J. Julius
With: Victor Sjöström (David Holm), Hilda Borgström (Mrs. Holm), Tore Svennberg (Georges), Astrid Holm (Sister Edit), Concordia Selander (Sister Edit's mother), Lisa Lundholm (Sister Maria), Tor Weijden (Gustafsson), Einar Axelsson (David Holm's brother), Olof Ås (Driver), Nils Ahrén (Prison chaplain), Simon Lindstrand (David's companion), Nils Elffors (David's companion), Algot Gunnarsson (A worker), Hildur Lithman (A worker's wife), John Ekman (A police constable)
by David Sterritt