Cast & Crew
In this silent film, fear of a terrible curse prompts a dying man to try atoning for his sins.
The Phantom Carriage
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
The Phantom Carriage
The Phantom Carriage - THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE - Landmark 1921 Swedish Silent Film from Director/Star Victor Sjostrom
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