The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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  • directed by Victor Sjöström
  • starring Victor Sjöström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Hilda Borgström
  • Legend holds that the last sinful person to die before the strike of midnight on New Year’s eve must drive a carriage for the next year collecting souls.

“Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped.” 

Fritz Lang, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Victor Sjöström: three legendary European directors who brought the character of Death to the screen in 1921, all in different ways and to varying degrees of success. Lang’s Destiny and Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book were both obsessed with placing the life and death divide in a thorough historical context and as a result both ultimately fell short of striking the sufficient emotional chords to match such lofty and evocative subject matter. There was a cold and almost docudrama feel to the films. Not so with The Phantom Carriage, which had a personal story that succeeded at conjuring up, with barely a direct nod, the larger physical and spiritual universe. Sjöström didn’t deal with the carriage in any terms larger than the dreaded role of driving it nor did he have to apply David’s struggle to several different people throughout history because his arc is so basic that it’s immediately relatable to humans anywhere, anytime.

The character of David Holm, as written in Selma Lagerlöf’s novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! and as performed by Sjöström, has a lot of torment and chaos under a calm and calculated shell. There was complexity and a lot of realism to Sjöström’s acting in this film. His temper was constantly seconds away from spilling over and the actor had complete command over delivering David’s afflicted, violent, patronizing, and considerate sides. It was by far the best male performance I have seen thus far in the silent era.

The story takes the film into many different territories from horror to religious drama to death-tinged fairy tale, but it moves fast enough and concentrates so hard on David that it never settles into just one genre. Think It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol but darker than Dickens, by default making it anything but Capra. David’s journey backward upon meeting the driver brings us through flashbacks upon flashbacks. Sjöström has in the air a few different timelines simultaneously and balances them all with ease making for an easy and captivating watch from start to finish.

It was an emotionally heavy film during the carriage scenes and Sjöström was able to achieve that with superb design and revolutionary effects work. I’ve seen the double exposure technique used before, but advancements in the technology had taken place to allow more layers to the superimposed images. The result was seeing the carriage as well as the souls escaping from those claimed by Death looking faint and otherworldly, while at the same time being perfectly present in the scenes, reacting naturally to the physical environment. Even the carriage slowly rolling over a raging ocean to claim a drowning victim was somehow visually believable. David Holm’s anguished and alcohol-fueled existence was presented to be a lot like drowning come to think of it. Edit at one point even says to him something to the effect of, “don’t try pulling us under with you.” So it seems like no accident that Sjöström would include the ocean into the carriage sequence as a sort of visual companion to David’s downward spiral. Slowly through a series of flashbacks over the course of Georges and David’s conversation, we are let into the extent of the damaging wake that alcohol has left in his life, and the nature of his disease and selfishness is all the more harsh when contrasted with the pure and well-meaning women around him. This builds until the surprisingly optimistic ending in which we as an audience are practically challenged to join Georges, and perhaps God, in believing in David’s turnaround and offering a reprieve.

The Phantom Carriage must have some high profile fans as a few of its scenes obviously influenced at least two major films decades later. Just about anybody will recognize the visual similarities between David wildly swinging an axe at his wife’s door and Jack Torrance doing the same in The Shining. The same setup came a few years earlier in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms but I noticed shots and angles that were directly delivered from Sjöström to Kubrick. The pivotal part of this axe sequence was how quickly David went from maniac with violent intentions to concerned husband who sees his wife unconscious and rushes to bring her water. That was a huge moment for David and for us as an audience to begin empathizing with him.

And then there’s Ingmar Bergman whose career, along with Sjöström’s, and the relationship that the two shared culminating in 1957’s Wild Strawberries, are the crowned jewels of Sweden’s film history. Bergman was a three-year-old in Uppsala, Sweden, when The Phantom Carriage was released but at some point later in life the director claimed to view it at least once a year. To name just one, there are plenty of similarities between this film and The Seventh Seal, but you can see remnants of Sjöström’s style in many places throughout Bergman’s filmography.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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