The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen)

Director: Victor Sjöström
Screenplay: Victor Sjöström (based on the novel by Selma Lagerlöf)
Stars: Victor Sjöström (David Holm), Hilda Borgström (Mrs. Holm), Tore Svennberg (Georges), Astrid Holm (Edit), Concordia Selander (Edit’s Mother), Lisa Lundholm (Maria), Tor Weijden (Gustafsson), Einar Axelsson (David’s Brother), Olof Ås (Driver), Nils Aréhn (Prison Chaplain), Simon Lindstrand (David’s Companion), Nils Elffors (David’s Companion), Algot Gunnarsson (Worker), Hildur Lithman (Worker’s wife), John Ekman (Police constable)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1921
Country: Sweden
The Phantom Carriage Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Phantom CarriageFor all intents and purposes, until the late 1920s there was no such thing as a horror film. Sure, there were films that had horrific elements in them, and as far back as the Edison Company’s 1910 version of Frankenstein, there had been cinematic adaptations of popular Gothic novels. Even D.W. Griffith had dabbled in the horrific with his melodrama The Avenging Conscience (1914), which borrowed plot elements from numerous of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems and featured one of the freakiest nightmare sequences in silent cinema. Films such as these, however, are best described as proto-horror films, a kind of intermediary step necessary before the full flowering of the genre could take place in the late silent era and the early 1930s.

Not surprisingly, some of the most important proto-horror films came from Europe, which had hundreds of years of history, myth, and folklore on which to draw, as well as the recent horrors of the First World War. In Germany, several filmmakers drew on Expressionism to create their own strain of psychologically attuned and highly stylized proto-horror with films like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). However, some of the most interesting and provocative proto-horror films emerged out of Scandinavia, a region whose silent film auteurs displayed a natural penchant for creepy-elegant visuals, moody tones, and an obsession with death, the supernatural, and the afterlife.

Preeminent among these is Victor Sjöström’s masterful The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen), a film that is probably best described as a spiritual melodrama. Based on the 1912 novel by Nobel Prize-winning writer Selma Lagerlöf, who was inspired by various strains of European folklore, The Phantom Carriage uses the supernatural as a backdrop for a moving parable about grief, guilt, and redemption. The central character is David Holm (played by Sjöström, who often cast himself in the lead in his own films), a complex man who is simultaneously sympathetic and despicable. Although he can be charming and boisterous, he is also selfish and cruel, his inner demons fueled by alcoholism and a bitterness toward life that becomes a constantly self-fulfilling prophecy. Having been deserted by his exasperated and fearful wife (Hilda Borgström), he spends one New Year’s Eve sleeping off his drunkenness at a Salvation Army shelter, where a young volunteer named Edit (Astrid Holm) becomes determined to help him. He viciously rebukes her efforts to help him, most directly by tearing up the coat she has mended all night at her own risk (he is sick with tuberculosis and doesn’t mind coughing in the direction of anyone who comes near him).

Following Lagerlöf’s novel, Sjöström’s script does not follow the story chronologically, but rather nests it in flashbacks that only gradually reveal the various relationships and interconnections among the characters. Sjöström resists demonizing David (as both director and actor), but instead portrays him as being trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of being both victim and victimizer. This seemingly inescapable situation is best exemplified in the sequence when David returns from prison expecting to find his wife and children waiting for them, but instead discovers that they have left him. It is hard to blame them, of course, given the abuse they have suffered at his hands, but at the same their desertion forestalls David’s turning over a new leaf and instead leads to his becoming even more bitter, vicious, and cruel.

Sjöström also builds in the backstory of Death’s Driver (the körkarlen of the original Swedish title) via Gustafsson (Tor Weijden), a drinking buddy of David’s who tells of his fear of dying on New Year’s Eve because of his belief that the last person who dies at the end of the year must spend the following year in the afterlife driving Death’s carriage and picking up the souls of the departed. Sjöström conveys this grim supernatural occupation with an elegant and impressive use of multiple exposures that render the driver and his carriage slightly transparent, so they take on a ghostly presence as they move about the world, literally pulling the souls of the recently departed out of their earthly vessels and carrying them away. Sjöström draws on folkloric imagery by having the driver’s face largely obscured by a hooded cloak and having him carry a scythe for no functional purpose except to associate him with hundreds of years of Grim Reaper tradition. The in-camera multiple exposure technique used to create the ghostly illusion is one of the oldest special effects in cinema, dating back to the late 19th-century trick films of Georges Méliès, yet I cannot recall a film in which they are used so effectively to convey the coexistence of life and the afterlife.

Unlike so many direct horror films of today, The Phantom Carriage has a deep spiritual weight that adds true depth to its horrific imagery (it is not surprising that the English translation of the original novel was titled Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, a title that was also affixed to the film when it was released in the U.K.). It helps that the film is so beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Julius Jaenzon, who employs extraordinary contrast and darkness in ways that evoke comparisons to Expressionism, but feel in the moment entirely natural. Sjöström keeps us connected to the characters via long-held close-ups, and he conjures up some truly unsettling images that are simultaneously beautiful and disturbing (this is particularly true of the long shots of the carriage set against a vast dark landscape). Yet, despite all the creepiness on display, the film ultimately affirms not the emptiness of death, but rather the importance of life. By giving us a protagonist who wastes his life in hatred, bitterness, and self-pity and then has the opportunity to relive his horrible decisions and recant them, The Phantom Carriage has much in common with Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and its many descendents (notably Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) in using the specter of death not as an end, but as a chance for a new beginning.

The Phantom Carriage Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Phantom Carriage is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • DTS Master Audio 3.0 surround
  • PCM 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary featuring film historian Casper Tybjerg
  • Interview with Ingmar Bergman excerpted from the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait
  • “The Bergman Connection” visual essay by film historian Peter Cowie
  • Footage of the construction of the Räsunda studio
  • Essay by screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Mayersberg
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 27, 2011

    According to Criterion’s liner notes, The Phantom Carriage was restored back in 1975 from two incomplete nitrate prints, which resulted in a new, restored duplicate negative. Criterion’s 2K transfer was made from that duplicate negative and then digitally scoured, removing as many instances of wear and damage as possible without negatively affecting the image. The results are duly impressive for a film that is now 90 years old. The transfer accurately renders the film’s impressive cinematography, with its deep blacks, strong contrast, and deep focus. There are definite signs of age and wear that couldn’t be removed, but nothing that is terribly distracting or jarring (the image is impressively stable throughout, with little of the jitteriness and flickering that is often evident even in restored films of this age). The image have been tinted according to the reference print, which means amber tones in the interior scenes and bluish in the nighttime exteriors. As Criterion often does with silent films, there is a choice between two scores, one relatively conventional orchestral score by Swedish composer Matti Bye that was recorded during its initial presentation with the film in 1998, and the other a electronic and guitar-based score by the experimental duo KTL that has been recently recorded and mixed. Both scores are excellent, but I preferred the KTL score, which is creepy and moody and atmospheric in all the right ways (I am typically biased toward modernist electronic scores with silent films).
    There are several familiar voices in the supplements, beginning with the audio commentary by Danish-film historian Casper Tybjerg, who had previously contributed a visual essay to Criterion’s Vampyr DVD and a commentary track on Criterion’s Häxan DVD. Tybjerg is astute and thorough in his analysis of the film, putting it in context with silent film style, Victor Sjöström’s other films, and the original novel on which it is based. Another familiar voice in the supplements belongs to film historian and Ingmar Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, who has contributed to more Criterion releases than I can count. Cowie contributes “The Bergman Connection,” an 18-minute visual essay that demonstrates the influence of The Phantom Carriage on a number of Bergman’s films. Bergman himself appears in an 18-minute excerpt from Gösta Werner’s 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait, in which he talks about the influence Sjöström had on his filmmaking career and his work with the director (Sjöström acted in two of Bergman’s films, mostly famously Wild Strawberries). Also on the disc is nearly five minutes of footage of the construction of Svensk Filmindustri’s studio at Räsunda where The Phantom Carriage was shot (it was the first film ever shot there).

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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