Background: In 1921, Swedish director Victor Sjöström created The Phantom Carriage (Spine #579) one of the most important works in Swedish cinema, and the one that heavily impacted Ingmar Bergman’s decision to enter the world of filmmaking. As if that isn’t enough, Charlie Chaplin repeatedly called it the best film ever made. Based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Selma Lagerlöf (the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature) this silent film tells a dark and foreboding story.
Story: Legend says that he who dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is condemned to steer the death carriage, gathering all the souls of those who die for the coming year. Each night for him is like 100 years, his ghastly form creaking along from clifftop heights to the depths of the sea. It’s his job to watch the dying breathe their last breath, no matter how agonizing it may be. And tonight, the job is about to turn over to someone we have yet to meet.
Sister Edit lies in her bed, about to be taken by “galloping consumption.” her mother looms over her at the foot of the bed, her fellow servant sits tearfully by. Edit lifts her pale frame from the sheets and cries, “Bring me David Holm!”
The Film: What could this Salvation Army Sister want with Holm, and who is he? This man (played by Sjöström himself) is first met on the street, a ragamuffin down-and-out who cruelly refuses to come to Sister Edit’s side at her request. His wife Anne, however, will make an appearance at Edit’s death bed with a certain rage and emotional forgiveness that can only be brought about by deep pain.
It’s simple to put things together right away. Sjöström will go on to show us just how David Holm went from a happy and loving husband and father to the hateful, cruel man he would become through three separate flashbacks shown to him by the driver of the death carriage. For it is David who is destined to become the next driver, a fitting punishment for his malicious actions, the result of his own mistakes and loss over the years.
Mrs. Holm is played by Hilda Borgström, a star of that time in every right and she is stunning on screen in a way that is rarely seen. Her expressive eyes convey the emotional and physical poverty she suffers as the result of her husband’s alcoholism and her performance begs to be seen. Sister Edit is played by Astrid Holm, a classically-trained ballerina who would go on to star in several notable Swedish silent films in her lifetime. Her ability to convey innocence and agape love is truly moving, and her love for David is somehow as innocent as it is problematic given his marital status. Whether confined to the bed or working to help those less fortunate, she has a grace that transcends the screen.
Unless you have a penchant for or a near-academic appreciation of silent films, they can be difficult to watch. But there’s something different about The Phantom Carriage the minute its dim sepia tones fill the screen. Immediately the power of the lighting is obvious and draws the eye to its well-framed and balanced vignettes. This is all thanks to Sjöström’s inventive and deft handling of setting the scene. The camera rarely moves in the film; instead, its characters are placed around it to communicate their bearing on the plot. The entire movie looks gorgeous and unsettling all at once, making its surprisingly long runtime (for the era) much more palatable.
The lighting is breathtaking, framing characters as points of focus, silhouetting them against lamps, softening their tears and causing angry shadows to loom against the walls warning of impending disaster. Careful attention is paid to the transition from light to dark, using careful techniques to maintain the deep blacks that were required for the story. Overall, The Phantom Carriage is dripping with atmosphere as almost the entirety of the movie takes place at night.
Most impressively, Sjöström’s use of double exposure had reached a level that no other had at the time. Though the trick would eventually become tired and overused, dismissed as an exhausted parlour trick that did not fully convey the spiritual experience, his attention to its quality was noted and enthusiastically celebrated at the time. This was more than simply filming, rewinding the reel and filming over top – Sjöström and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon ensured that depth perception and placement were perfect – ghosts who stand behind the bed are partially obstructed by it and their interaction with their earthly counterparts reach a level of perfection not yet seen. As the death carriage rolls along the crashing waves, weaving in and out between rocks, it shows a remarkable attention to detail.
At first glance, The Phantom Carriage comes off as a simplistic morality play. Reflecting Sweden’s era of prohibition, a sort of piety from the troublesome Salvation Army and David Holm’s facing his demons while seeking release from them can be overly moralistic. But looking beyond its heavy-handed message it is a beautiful tale of love, redemption and forgiveness. First it is all terror and remorse, David lashing out at everyone around him in his own pain – even towards his own children. He sacrifices every chance at happiness if it means someone else will get to share in it. He is a miserable man, and the climax between his relationship with his wife is truly terrifying. At the same time, he will manage to evoke empathy from the audience straight until the end. This is largely due to Sjöström’s performance, an almost caricature-like dedication to displaying deep emotion. Horror fans will be delighted to see a scene that is unmistakable in its influence on The Shining as though it’s not classified as a horror film, the themes are strong throughout.
The issues and conflicts that are dealt with in The Phantom Carriage make it a timeless story even though today it is nearly 100 years old. They are so personal and human, these struggles that warp our personalities and desires and ultimately change our destinies. Shown next to the ghastly carriage, the scythe-wielding driver silhouetted against the night sky, the story feels more real and powerful than one might expect, if you’re not used to having to read title cards between strange-moving pictures. STill, with some extra patience and appreciation, The Phantom Carriage can become a favourite for many, and perhaps an introduction into this antique artform.
Supplements: This new restoration done in combination by the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute looks great and maintains its quality throughout. The commentary provided by film historian Casper Tybjerg is an outstanding addition to the film. It managed to completely enrich viewing, adding interesting information about filming, the source material, and what was happening in Sweden at the time. It cultivates a deep appreciation for the work, and is a must-listen for anyone who wants to learn more about the silent era. There are two additional scores available for audiophiles, a wonderful treat when the score so directly impacts the mood of silent cinema.
An interview with Ingmar Bergman is provided from the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait where Bergman recalls his great admiration for the director, and what it was like to work with him later in several of his own movies. Additionally, there is a short visual essay by film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie on The Phantom Carriage’s direct influence on Bergman’s work. Finally, there is a short 4-minute video depicting construction of the Råsunda studio, built and used first for The Phantom Carriage and still used today as office buildings. This is probably the weakest supplement, but it was neat to see it in snapshot form.
Overall: The Phantom Carriage is a terribly moving, gorgeous piece of film from the silent era. The Criterion edition has so much interesting information given in the supplemental commentary that it should immediately become a must-watch for any dedicated cinephile.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: A
Featured Image: Criterion Collection