#579 The Phantom Carriage
1921 // Sweden // Victor Sjöström
Criterion Release Date: 27 Sept 2011 (LINK)
Astounding as it sounds, The Phantom Carriage (Swedish: Körkarlen) continues to withhold the power of spirituality and the awe-inspiring visual effects even ninety years after its production. Although, as viewed by CGI-fed cinema-goers like myself, the modern technology of film-making has unkindly diminished the impact of the sophisticated utilization of double exposure in The Phantom Carriage, the atmospheric storytelling and the unflinching experimental use of filming technique surely worth our utter respect to the film and its respective crew members.
Based on the novel by the Nobel-prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, the film adaptation hasn’t lose its literary root, as seen by the abundance use of dialogues-filled intertitle cards and the complex use of flashback narrative structure. The film itself recalls a novelistic approach to characters introduction, where characters’ background and their intertwining relationship are explored layer after layer as the film progresses. The film opens with a moribund Salvation Amy sister called Edit (Astrid Holm), her last wish on her dying bed is to meet David Holm again. Who’s David Holm? Why she needs to see him so desperately and why he is nowhere to be found? Why David Holm’s wife (Hilda Borgström) almost loses herself in anguish when she meets Edit? The seed of curiosity is planted skilfully, and it grows exponentially as the story unfolds until fruition.
David Holm (played by the director Victor Sjöström himself), as we soon realize, is a self-destructive drunkard, wasting himself in the graveyard while people searching for him. Accidentally killed upon a brawl just as the clock strikes twelve on the New Year’s Eve, David Holm is bound to be the new coachman of the Death Carriage for the coming year, until another soul replaces him next New Year’s Eve. Holm’s lifeless soul meets his coachman predecessor Georges (Tore Svennberg), a familiar face he knows in his earthy years and the one responsible for his downfall and alienation from his loving family.
With the use of double exposure, the soul figure and the Death Carriage are projected in a transparent supernatural ghostly look, contrasting with solid background and living human being. Together with the sickle and the eerie hooded look of the coachman, the representation of Death has a more strikingly unsettling feeling than, say, the Death in Fritz Lang’s Destiny released on the same year. Yet somehow I could imagine the new generation would simply tease at or despise the outdated technique, if not accustomed to the unique aesthetics of silent cinema.
In spite of the out-of-fashion technicality, the theme of spirituality still rings true in general viewers. The Christianity love and selflessness, represented by Sister Edit whom stubborn urge to help the unappreciated Mr. Holm, only brings misfortune and suffering to his related people and herself. David Holm’s violent and sarcastic behavior maybe partially explained by his alcoholism, as well as his masculine pride, which in turn leads to the abandonment by his own wife and children. He soon contracts Tuberculosis, a disease that takes as a symbol of evilness and torment, being consumptive and contiguous, ultimately causes the death of Sister Edit by the way of the same disease, just as evilness spreads.
Is Sister Edit’s sacrifice purely originated by innocence and love? We understand there is an underlying sexual attraction from her point of view, which I find to be unconvincing and too convenient as a plot. Yet without it, her ultimate act would be too naive and over-idealistic. The humanistic view in both Lagerlöf and Sjöström can be taken as a post World War One fable, a wish to believe human love and willingness for redemption could beat death, as shown by the resurrection of David Holm in the finale.
The Phantom Carriage has a continuous impact for the filmmakers in the last century, namely Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (as seen in the door-axing scene in The Shining). Victor Sjöström would continue to make masterpieces in America in the 20s, like He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and The Wind (1928), which deserve to be remembered in conjunction of The Phantom Carriage.