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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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more for his acting performances later in life, namely as the protagonist in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, he originally made his mark as a prolific and very innovative director, beginning in the silent era and spanning into early talkies.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
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is one of those silent movies to show people who think they don't like silent movies. I have yet to meet someone that I have shown it to who was not captivated by it. Part of that is due to the similarity of the plot to a well known English property which I won't name here but a lot of it is due to the simple but creative special effects that seem perfectly natural in keeping with the story being told. Credit should also be given to the lead performances of Victor Sjostrom and Hilda Borgstrom which seem as contemporary as anything seen today. It's easy to see why Ingmar Bergman would have been attracted to and inspired by this story of a vicious alcoholic who receives his comeuppance and an unexpected shot at redemption. The dysfunctional family theme, long a staple of Scandinavian drama, also plays well today. A surprising movie that still has the power to engage and enthrall audiences 90 years later.
This film is NOT as painful to watch as "Broken Blossom with Lillian Gish!" but pretty close.
Silent film in black and white.
help but bring thoughts of A Christmas CAROL to mind yet there is no
happy ending. Directed & lead acted by Victor Sjostrom the man that
inspired Ingmar Bergman to become a director it is a Swedish folktale
as were many Swedish movies of the time. It revolves around the story
of a relationship between a Salvation Army Worker (female) & her
attempt to help an alcoholic bum who only has negative affects on the
lives of those around him. It's a truly dark movie in all aspects with
hard lessons for everyone. Intentions are definitely shown here but the
story is about actual effects.
The FX of the carriage itself are startling & better than you'd believe
for such an early movie. My copy was a Criterion Edition & I can only
recommend that restoration as I've seen no other. This is a 10/10 for
me. It is available in Criterion Blu-Ray also & is 107 mins long, which
is the full original Swedish version. English subtitles are included.
One both my wife & I are happy to own.