DO THE DEAD COME BACK? CAN YOUR SOUL LEAVE YOUR BODY – AND RETURN AGAIN? IS SPIRITUALISM A REALITY?
When Victor Sjöström made this film, he was already a Selma Lagerlöf veteran, having adapted several of her novels for the big screen. In 1919, Lagerlöf sold the film rights to all her novels to a Swedish studio that promptly started turning them into movies. Of those adaptations, Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) and The Phantom Carriage became highly influential, even internationally. Among major filmmakers, Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman have expressed admiration for what Sjöström accomplished here. This was also the film that reached Hollywood’s attention; a few years later, the director was on his way to a successful American career.
A dying nurse’s last wish
The story begins on a New Year’s Eve, when a dying Salvation Army nurse, Edit (Astrid Holm), has a last wish: she wants to know whatever happened to David Holm (Sjöström), a drunk and abusive lout that she once helped. Did he ever change, like she prayed for? We are subsequently introduced to David, who’s still a drunkard, now sitting in a graveyard together with a few buddies, telling them a strange story about his old friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) who died a year ago. Before that incident, Georges had told David about a legend where the last person to die each year has to drive Death’s carriage and collect souls.
Later that night, David is killed during a fight with his drinking pals; as his soul rises from his body, he sees Georges emerge as the driver of Death’s carriage…
Creating advanced photographic effects
The art of filmmaking was still very young, but the director had a formidable collaborator in the cinematographer, Julius Jaenzon, who had done such brilliant work in Sir Arne’s Treasure. There were scenes in that film illustrating an aura of mystery, but they were not as advanced as the photographic effects required of The Phantom Carriage. Jaenzon and his lab worked with double exposures in the camera, adding more layers than in Sir Arne’s Treasure, thereby creating a more realistic effect as the ghosts moved around.
The visuals weren’t the only groundbreaking aspect of the film. Rarely had audiences seen a movie where the story was told in such a complex way, adding flashbacks within flashbacks. Sjöström handles the challenge deftly, without ever losing control of this typical story of morals. Depicting David’s tragic descent into alcoholism and disdain of life, it is enlivened by the Dickensian introduction of Georges, the driver of the phantom carriage, who much like Marley in ”A Christmas Carol” shows David the tragedy he has caused. Sjöström himself delivers the film’s most memorable performance, illustrating the cruel and pathetic streaks of his character to great effect. Holm is also fine as Edit, a woman who is inexplicably drawn to the plight of David, an experience that becomes more passionate when she meets Anna (Hilda Borgström), his wife who took the kids and ran away from him.
The Phantom Carriage also has its share of terror. One of the scenes near the end has become specially intriguing. Depicting David trying to break his way into a locked room by using an axe, the scene allegedly inspired the famous ”Here’s Johnny!” moment in The Shining (1980).
There have been several music scores written for the film over the years. Try to catch Matte Bye’s, if you can. Originally written for a 1998 VHS release of the film, the music perfectly captures the different mood swings, from the horror of Death’s carriage, to the unsteady pleasures of a night out in a bar, to the effort of Edit providing comfort at the Salvation Army.
The Phantom Carriage 1921-Sweden. Silent. 107 min. B/W. Produced by Charles Magnusson. Written and directed by Victor Sjöström. Novel: Selma Lagerlöf (”Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!”). Cinematography: Julius Jaenzon. Cast: Victor Sjöström (David Holm), Hilda Borgström (Anna Holm), Tore Svennberg (Georges), Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander, Lisa Lundholm… Elof Ahrle, Edvin Adolphson.
Trivia: Original title: Körkarlen. Remade in France in 1939 and Sweden in 1958.