The Phantasmagoric Phantom Carriage

It sounds unbelievable, but some experts estimate that about 85 to 90 percent of all the films made during the silent era are presumed to be lost. As a consequence, within a relatively short period of time, a large part of our cultural heritage just vanished into oblivion. Such an ominous observation becomes more severe as we have the opportunity to enjoy movies from those years. In spite of their technological limitations, some silent films have proved to posses both an incredible aesthetic sophistication and a complex ideological subtext.

Such is the case of The Phantom Carriage (aka Körkarlen, 1921), a Swedish production which arguably is one of the greatest films ever made. Indeed, this movie is truly revolutionary because of its phantasmagoric special effects, its original use of camera techniques to enhance the content of the plot, and its innovative non-linear narrative. Furthermore, the film presents an incisive criticism to prevalent social problems within a powerful story of unconditional love and sincere redemption.

Directed and written for the screen by Victor Sjöström, The Phantom Carriage was a rather faithful adaptation of the 1912 novel by Swedish Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940). It is important to recall that the cherished prize in literature was granted to Lagerlöf in 1909 “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”. And truth be told, The Phantom Carriage succeeds in embracing the intellectual qualities that made Lagerlöf deserve the Nobel.

That film and novel are faithful to each other should not be a surprise. After all, the filmmaker and the writer appear to have enjoyed working together. Indeed, The Phantom Carriage marked the forth collaboration between Sjöström and Lagerlöf. Arguably, Sjöström was empathic to the artistic and cultural sensibilities that made Lagerlöf’s work so powerful.

In this regard, it is important to recall that Sjöström was famous for being a politically conscious artist, and his craft usually conveyed powerful political and ideological messages that addressed important social issues. Such is the case of Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm (1913), an emotional film about how a widow and her children struggle to survive poverty in modern day Sweden. Allegedly, the social commentary of this movie was so overt and strong that it actually inspired the Swedish government to make radical changes to the country’s poor relief laws.

Similarly, The Phantom Carriage presents a politically charged storyline around the negative social effects of alcoholism and poverty in 1920s Sweden. The film is based on the Nordic legend that tells how the last person to die before the end of the year is condemned to drive Death’s carriage during the following year. As an emissary of Death, the driver has to travel across the globe to collect the souls of the recently departed. In a beautiful idea that dispels the obvious logical holes in the fable, one of the characters explains that the driver experiments a slow flow of time, so he has enough time to pick up every soul.

The Phantom Carriage is framed on the story of Edit (Astrid Holm), a Salvation Army nurse who helps the poor. She pays special attention to the welfare of David Holm (Sjöström), a drunken drifter who is the first person under her care. As the film reveals, David is looking for his runaway wife, who deserted him while he was doing time in jail after being caught drunk in public. After a violent altercation right before the end of the year, David passes out and the dreaded carriage arrives to welcome its new driver. At the prospect of a hellish damnation, David repents for all his sins.

At first sight, The Phantom Carriage may look like a simple moralistic tale in the same style of the many works by D. W. Griffith, the pioneering American filmmaker who directed a variety of melodramas about the harmful effects of drinking. However, in spite of its clear moral lesson, The Phantom Carriage is a rather complex film that uniquely exploits the distinctive powers of the moving image.

A truly revolutionary film at the time, The Phantom Carriage is one of the first movies that used camera techniques to enhance the narrative. That is, the focus and framing of the image are often used to manipulate the attention of the viewer to a specific event or character in the story. For example, some scenes that portray the anguish of David’s wife use a circular filter centered on her figure, while fading to black at the edges of the frame. In this regard, The Phantom Carriage spearheaded the creation of films that went beyond a literal or theatrical interpretation of a play.

Furthermore, The Phantom Carriage presents a complex non-linear narrative reminiscent of the structure of Jan Potocki’s influential novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1805-1815). In The Phantom Carriage, the story is told as a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback. If you think about it, this unusual narrative style is evidence enough to confirm that The Phantom Carriage was a film way ahead of its time. It is ironic, however, that this movie was reedited for its US distribution. The distributors believed that American audiences would not be able to appreciate, or understand, the original non-linear structure.

In addition to its unique narrative prowess, The Phantom Carriage also features superb special effects. While the technique of double exposure had been developed and exhausted during the previous decade by French magician Georges Melies, Sjöström and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon took the procedure to new heights of perfection in The Phantom Carriage.

In this regard, the filmmakers were very careful to place solid objects around the phantasmagoric apparitions to increase their visual and dramatic impact. Furthermore, the use of special effects within the story is exquisite, revealing the aesthetic sensibilities of the filmmakers. For instance, the sequence where the carriage collects the soul of a drown mariner is pure cinematic bliss.

The beautiful cinematic experience offered by The Phantom Carriage is rounded up with a new orchestral score recently composed by Matti Bye. An acclaimed composer working for the Swedish Film Institute, Bye has provided the soundtrack for several films from the silent era. Running for the entire length of the film, the score succeeds in enhancing the anguish, suffering, and redemption of its troubled characters.

However, in spite of presenting a moralistic and melodramatic tale, The Phantom Carriage is a horror film as well. Thus, it is important to appreciate this film within the context of horror cinema. Released in 1921, it is one of the first movies of the genre. Produced nearly at the same time as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (aka Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, 1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (aka Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922), The Phantom Carriage presents many elements characteristic of the German films made during the Expressionistic movement between 1920 and 1930. That is, not only is Sjöström’s film immersed in shadows, but also uses symbolism and mise-en-scene to enhance the atmosphere and meaning of the film.

In addition, in spite of being a rather obscure title, it is easy to appreciate the impact of The Phantom Carriage on horror culture. First of all, this film was remade twice, in 1939 by the French director Julien Duvivier, and in 1958 by the Sweden Arne Mattson. Furthermore, The Phantom Carriage has a scene where a cruel and drunken David is locked inside the bathroom by his frightened wife, who is trying to run away with her two kids. At this point, an enraged David uses an axe to destroy the door and prevent his wife from fleeing. Thus, one is left to wonder if the legendary Stanley Kubrick consciously attempted to pay tribute to this classic of the silent era when he made his supreme masterwork of supernatural horror and overpowering madness, The Shinning (1980).

In any event, the strongest influence of The Phantom Carriage was in the work of celebrated Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (1918 – 2007). Indeed, according to Bergman, The Phantom Carriage is “… the film of all films” and he has confessed that this film was an inspiration for him to pursue a career in filmmaking. This is not entirely surprising, as most of Bergman’s films tend to have a variety of horrific elements. Furthermore, Bergman’s undisputable masterwork, The Seventh Seal (aka Det Sjunde Inseglet, 1957), portrays a sympathetic specter of Death, carrying a scythe and wearing a black hooded robe, in a manner reminiscent of The Phantom Carriage.

From the TV version of The Image Makers (Bildmakarna)

Such was the love of Bergman for The Phantom Carriage that, in 1998, nearly 15 years after he had announced his retirement from the director’s chair, he decided to personally helm the theatrical play The Image Makers (aka Bildmakarna). Under the auspices of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Bergman directed the play written by Per Olv, which was an intriguing fictionalization of events around the making of The Phantom Carriage.

In the play, Olv envisioned a meeting between Sjöström, Jaenzon, Lagerlöf, and the tempestuous and emotional silent film star Tora Teje to discuss the dailies of The Phantom Carriage. According to Bergman himself, he consider himself the best and the only candidate to direct this work, not only because of his love and admiration for The Phantom Carriage, but also because he personally knew all the characters portrayed in the play.

The success of the play led Bergman to direct a TV movie version of The Image Makers in 2000. The resulting film may not be as accomplished as Bergman’s previous works, but it is exemplary on its simplicity and powerful acting. Indeed, nearly the entire movie takes place in a single locale, Sjöström’s office, and inherits the structure and drama of the theatrical play. That is, the shots are unusually long for a motion picture and it lacks a soundtrack to underscore the action.

However, what makes The Image Makers so compelling is the way it relates to the plot and moral lesson of The Phantom Carriage. That is, all the characters in the film are portrayed as troubled because of an alcohol problem affecting them or someone in their family. As such, The Image Makers puts in evidence the problem of alcohol addiction and its negative effects on society. And of course, this is pretty much the same ideological subtext found in The Phantom Carriage.

Thanks to Tartan UK, The Phantom Carriage and The Image Makers can be appreciated in all their glory on home video. Both films have been recently released on a gorgeous Region 2 DVD. The transfer of The Phantom Carriage shows a few image artifacts, but these are expected in a film nearly 90-years-old. On the other hand, The Image Makers looks practically perfect. Unfortunately, no significant extra features can be found on this presentation.

While The Image Makers is not a major entry in Bergman’s oeuvre, its source of inspiration, The Phantom Carriage, can be rightfully considered as one of the most important films from the silent era. Arguably, The Phantom Carriage was truly revolutionary in the way it exploited the unique features of motion pictures, and clearly anticipated the sophisticated narrative and visual structure of modern films.