The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Victor Sjöström’s haunting morality fable entails three drunkards recalling a tale of the Phantom Carriage. As the myth goes, whomever dies at midnight on New Year’s eve must take over the ghostly reigns and collect the souls of the dead. As midnight approaches, David Holms dies and begins an eerie journey…

The legendary director Ingmar Bergman once called The Phantom Carriage “the film of all films” and cited it as the greatest influence on his work. There are multiple reasons why Bergman may have given this piece such high appraisal, many of which become immediately apparent after a single viewing of this unique experience. Victor Sjöström’s directorial talent is a phenomenal leap away from the melodramatics present in a spectrum of early silent films. Sjöström urges his cast towards naturalism and understated reactions. Gone are the flailing arms and fits of crying. Instead, we find an engaging and involving experience to witness genuineness of interactions from the major to the minor. Audiences are given freedom to work to understand character interactions rather than being slapped in the face with over-amped emotions. Holm’s wife totters laboriously in bitter depression, Holm brutishly staggers and interactions of love and hate can be as subtle as a flicker of the eye. It is enormously refreshing to be watching the emotional range of seemingly real people.

This is one of the strongest aspects of the piece. The reality of the characters, the consistency and overarching challenges and changes ring true. This is a great human story, full of tragedy and mistakes and the ultimate need for redemption and atonement. Sjostrom plays the lead role of David Holm and does so with brilliance. Holm’s staggered and painful transformation captures the hearts of audiences, we can despise his characters as much as we love him. He is not a simple hero but a broken drunkard with a repertoire of shameful deeds from the violent to the vindictive. It is the testament to the power of Sjöström’s directing and acting talents that Holm weeping and begging for another chance in his hopeless and helpless spirit form is both a fitting punishment and a heartbreaking sight.

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Not only does Sjöström elevate The Phantom Carriage from theatrical acting, but the staging and involvement in this cold and dark world is a step towards verisimilitude. The world of Phantom Carriage is tangible, characters exist and move through this world with fluidity. Sjöström establishes camera shots best suited to the purpose of a reaction or the storytelling. We as an audience are moved at the whim of Sjöström, allowing actors to naturally inhabit the world away from the camera. Such a technique seems natural to the storytelling process, but it has been greatly ignored in previous films on this list. Sjöström interestingly does away with explanation title cards, reserving them exclusively for dialogue. The excellent staging with the necessary dialogue pushes the story on with elegant pace. It is a surprisingly modern film experience.

Perhaps Bergman most identified with the classic Scandinavian sensibility of the film. The ending of this piece may not satisfy, but it is a beautiful end and, most importantly, honest. Even visually, this film is the epitome of bleak Scandinavian outlook. The events of the story seem to occur only in the depths of a cold and harsh night. The seemingly natural lighting of flickering candles and lamps creates a natural vignette and juts harsh shadows across characters and settings. It is an expressionistic piece of the most subtle kind, but certainly one of technical brilliance. The camera trickery to allow the phantom carriage driver to pass through doorways or Holm to exit his corpse and wonder as a spirit are fantastic even by today’s standards. Sometimes the simplest of tricks are the most effective.

Reminiscent of the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, Sjöström conjures an eerie fairtyale of love, morality and the perils of life without either.

Classic Moment… 

Two men fight tooth and nail in the middle of a poker game on New Year’s Eve. Geroges (Tore Svennberg) breaks up the fight and warns the fighters of the terrible fate they could bring upon themselves. To die at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is to submit oneself to be the phantom driver of the ghostly chariot. Geroges continues his story and we witness the haunted coach go about its business wherever death beckons. The camera trickery and expert storytelling combine for a chilling effect in Georges folktale.

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