The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen)
Sweden (1921) Dir. Victor Sjöström
One of Swedish cinema’s founding fathers and biggest influence on Ingmar Bergman, Victor Sjöström, is a name that deserves greater recognition today. Sjöström was one the most successful filmmakers in early Swedish cinema who also crossed over to Hollywood, most notably for 1928’s The Wind with the legendary Lillian Gish.
However this part supernatural-part morality tale from 1921 is considered Sjöström’s greatest achievement – indeed it was the film that inspired Bergman to become a director himself, and he repaid Sjöström by casting him in his classic film Wild Strawberries.
Based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, whose adapted works Sjöström had previous success with, The Phantom Carriage is a dark, cautionary tale on the dangers of alcohol abuse, the ramifications of one’s bad behaviour and the then prevalent issue of the illness consumption.
On New Year’s Eve Salvation Army Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) is dying of Tuberculosis. Her final wish is to see a man called David Holm (Sjöström), eventually tracked down drinking by a cemetery, regaling his friends with the tale of a curse that befalls the last person to die on New Year’s Eve, fated to collect the souls of the dead for the whole of the next year.
When David refuses to visit Edit, his drinking companions turn on him, a fight ensues and David is killed by a blow to the head with a bottle. Shortly after the spectral figure of the Grim Reaper – in the form of David’s late friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) – arrives to pass on this punishing job to David, but first allows him a moment of reflection on the pain he caused with his poor behaviour.
The horror credentials of this film might seem flimsy when taken as a whole, with the discussions of death and the driving forces surrounding David’s despicable persona being more grounded in philosophy and morality than the cause of supernatural invention. Yet it is the use of groundbreaking visual effects for the time and the central conceit of being death’s courier that soon reveals the vast and lasting influence The Phantom Carriage has had on filmmakers.
Similarly the structure of the narrative, which takes the form of a flashback within a flashback, was equally subversive for the time but necessary to tell this multi-layered story in complete detail. This piecemeal storytelling allows for the revelations of the individual components and their eventual convergence to resonate with chilling effectiveness and strike deep with their poignancy.
The stream of consciousness that runs through each of skein relies upon the basic principle of being responsible for your own behaviour, something David refuses to accept while Sister Edit carries as her cross to bear. It is not until Georges, as the incumbent Grim Reaper, forces David to confront his past that we learn just what a terrible person he was and the distorted sophistry which ruled his actions.
David was happily married to Anna (Hilda Borgström) and had two daughters until he and his brother (Einar Axelsson) fell in with Georges and soon boozy nights replaced his family time. Following a stint in jail, David is distraught to learn that Anna and the kids have long gone, fed up with his drunken behaviour, and vows to find Anna and make her suffer the same pain she caused him.
Having contracted consumption while searching for Anna across Sweden, David finds temporary care on New Year’s Eve at the Salvation Army hostel where Edit falls for him. She tends him back to health and repairs his clothes but David repays her with open malevolence and scorn. Edit, having caught his illness, asks David to visit her in one year to see if her prayers for him have worked which he sneers at.
Recognisable elements from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the Hollywood classic It’s A Wonderful Life will standout for first time viewers but neither are as incisively bleak and desperately sad indictments of human behaviour as presented here. As mild as they may seem now, Sjöström doesn’t sugar coat the atrocities David commits, painting him as a man seemingly beyond redemption, his hatred deeply ingrained within.
Despite the clear moral message of the story, Lagerlöf was originally commissioned to write a novel to raise awareness about consumption, a theme she could have addressed as a straight our horror but instead cleverly worked it into this dramatic tale as a catalyst for her characters’ plights. It is Sjöström’s visionary interpretation, which Lagerlöf approved after Sjöström acted out the script to her in person, that makes it such a chillingly efficacious work.
The final act is admittedly pure melodrama but the tension building Sjöström achieves through the interwoven script, tight editing and superb acting makes it horrific in its own way. This is arguably one of those occasions where being a silent film is intrinsic to the emotional impact and palpable sense of dread, something sound would assuredly distract from.
Similarly the eeriness of the ghostly apparitions also leaves an unnerving impression being viewed in silence with just a plaintive musical accompaniment. This effect was an early example of double exposing the images to depict the titular ghostly carriage as an ethereal presence making its way undetected across the land, and remains a marvel to this day.
While the acting in silent Hollywood films was full of exaggerated gestures, European directors largely eschewed this, preferring realism and nuance. Sjöström was no different, leading by example as the despicable David while coaxing two different but richly poignant performances from Astrid Holm and Hilda Borgström as Edit and Anna respectively. Tore Svennberg is also quietly effective as Georges in his reaper form.
The Phantom Carriage shocks its audience not as a traditional horror film, but with its cold, allegorical depiction of mankind’s dark side, yet never didactic in proffering situations we can all learn from, even 94 years later. A sublime achievement in cinema from an underrated master and deserving of its classic status.