The Phantom Carriage
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The last person to die on New Year’s Eve before the clock strikes twelve is doomed to take the reins of Death’s chariot and work tirelessly collecting fresh souls for the next year. So says the legend that drives The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen), directed by the father of Swedish cinema, Victor Sjöström (The Wind), about an alcoholic, abusive ne’er-do-well (Sjöström himself) who is shown the error of his ways and the pure-of-heart Salvation Army sister who believes in his redemption. Based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, this extraordinarily rich and innovative silent classic (which inspired Ingmar Bergman to make movies) is a Dickensian ghost story and a deeply moving morality tale, as well as a showcase for groundbreaking special effects.
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Phanton Carriage - This Swedish silent is said to be Ingmar Bergman’s favorite film, and the movie that made him want to be a director. You can certainly see its influence of Bergman’s work, as well as on a famous Stanley Kubrick sequence. But beyond that, this is a very strong silent film on it’s own merits. Echoing Dickens “A Christmas Carol” , but using a Swedish ghost fable as it’s core, a man is forced to revisit his wasted angry life at the moment of his death.
The dramatic structure is surprisingly complex, with flashbacks within flashbacks. The acting is generally very good. There are a few of those over the top silent film acting moments, but there are also moments of tremendous emotional power just from the look in someone’s eyes. And some of the images are just thrilling, with simple superimpositions creating a tremendously effective, creepy, ghostly mood. Great use of color tinting as well. The modern orchestral score by Matti Bye -- included on just about all DVD and blu-ray versions is very strong – melodic, moving, never distracting, but certainly doing a great job of underlying the many many emotions of the film, without ever feeling corny or ‘faux-period’. A fascinating and beautifully made silent that certainly had its effect on great 20th century filmmaking and film-makers.
The Image Makers - More a staged play for television than a film, this is wordy theatrical, and yet still has a lot of arresting moments. A fictionalized dramatization of the making of “The Phantom Carriage” Bergman’s favorite film, a film he reportedly saw over 100 times, and was what prompted him to be a film-maker. Yet the play (not written by Bergman) is less about that specific film than a host of other themes; relationships, the adaptation of literature to film in general, generational conflict, women and men’s sexualities as they age, the tension between social propriety and the desire to cast off bourgeois trappings among artists, etc.
Just four characters populate this world. The self-satisfied yet vulnerable film-maker creating “The Image Maker”, his somewhat subservient director of photography, the young, unapologetically promiscuous actress the director has an affair with, and the 60 something Nobel prize wining female author whose story is the basis for the film. Almost the entire piece takes place in a screening room as they prepare to show the great author this cinematic reinvention of her work, but along the way the group gets broken into various twos and threes working out their own insecurities and emotional and philosophical confusions. While far from great Bergman, it’s always interesting, and the context of being packaged with 'The Phantom Carriage' gives it an additional resonance and depth.
The Phantom Carriage is a silent Swedish film made by legendary actor/director Victor Sjöström. While Sjöström is known more for his acting performances later in life, namely as the protagonist in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, he originally made his mark as a prolific and very innovative director, beginning in the silent era and spanning into early talkies. This film is considered by many to be one of his very best and is a perfect example of how Sjöström both pioneered and refined techniques that were used for decades to come.
The film uses double exposures quite extensively. While this technique was not new, for this film it was far more advanced, consisting of multiple layers and dimensions. While the techniques may seem obvious and even primitive by today's standards, they left audiences awed and mesmerized 90 years ago. Another innovation of this film is the unique structure in which it's told. This is one of the first movies to make extensive use of flashbacks, going as far as having flashbacks within flashbacks.
I will briefly cover the plot, as to not ruin the film for someone who has never seen it before. The film opens on a dark and depressing New Year's Eve with a young Salvation Army sister named Edit lying on her deathbed. Her last wish is to see David Holm, an alcoholic she had tried to help the previous New Year's Eve. David promised Edit that he would return on this very day to show her if her prayers for him had been answered. Since he has yet to arrive, someone is sent to find him before it's too late. David (portrayed by Sjöström) is found in a local cemetery with two of his drinking buddies recalling a legend told to them by their friend Georges. The legend states that the last person to die each year has to work the following year for Death collecting souls from the dead. The irony is that after telling the legend, Georges himself died on New Year's Eve. David and his friends are drinking and laughing until an altercation occurs, leading to David's accidental death right before the stroke of midnight. His soul steps out of his body right before Death's carriage arrives revealing Georges as its driver. From here the story has a Dickens-like feel as Georges drives David around in the carriage showing him the mistakes he's made via flashbacks. The rest of the story shall remain unspoiled. . . I hope you enjoy it as much as I have over the years.
The Phantom Carriage, based on the novel "Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!" (Körkarlen) by Nobel-prize winning author Selma Lagerlöf, is an example of a somewhat modernized version of the old right vs. wrong morality tales. The main message in the film is to show how problems, such as alcoholism, can completely destroy someones life, but with a little faith and guidance, salvation is always attainable. In this, and many of his other films, Sjöström so masterfully shows the problems he saw within society, and the impact they could have on us if not resolved. . .
**Special Features and Technical Aspects - As Listed by Criterion**
-New digital restoration, done in collaboration with the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute
-Two scores, one by Swedish composer Matti Bye and the other by the experimental duo KTL
-Audio commentary featuring film historian Casper Tybjerg
-Interview with Ingmar Bergman, excerpted from the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait, by Gösta Werner
-The Bergman Connection, an original visual essay by film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie on the film's influence on Bergman
-Footage of the construction of the Räsunda studio where The Phantom Carriage was the inaugural production
-New and improved English subtitle translation
-PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Mayersberg
Black and White
Acting is as you'd expect in a silent film, with grander gestures and facial expressions than you see today - but that's part of its retro charm. The script seems light and moralistic too, culminating in a deathbed repentance and happy-ish ending. I'm glad I've seen it, but might not have room for it in my permanent video library.