Jun 022013

Swedish cinema is sometimes considered synonymous with the films of Ingmar Bergman, but even a genius must have his influences. In the beginning, there was Victor Sjöström‘s eerie landmark silent film The Phantom Carriage, which elevated early horror to new heights of surrealistic complexity. Bergman’s ineffable use of water effects—as in Through a Glass Darklyowes a debt to Phantom, as does the wistful flashback style in Wild Strawberries (a film in which an aging Sjöström would be the central protagonist). And the grim reaper would tear my chest open with his scythe if I were to forget that the chess-playing Death in The Seventh Seal had its roots in the carriage-driving gatherer of souls from Phantom.

Its metaphysical story of a man’s redemption through the instruction of a spirit interestingly bears a close resemblance to Charles Dickens‘s yuletide tale A Christmas Carol. The central character in Phantom, David Holm (played by Sjöström himself), albeit is not a miser, but an alcoholic profligate, and is visited not by three spirits but by just one, his drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg). But Holm, like Scrooge, achieves his spiritual salvation by returning kindnesses to his fellow man—or, in this case, woman, a Salvation Army worker named Edit (Astrid Holm).

The story begins by her bedside as she is dying of tuberculosis, a disease she ironically contracted from David Holm years earlier while mending his germ-ridden coat. A tidy, quasi-Dickensian plot connects the two characters, with the saintly Edit also trying to patch up David’s ailing marriage to Anna Holm (Hilda Borgström). Now, in the hour of her death, she wants to see David one last time so that her soul can rest assured that he has turned his life around.

The film’s use of time is remarkable, containing flashbacks within flashbacks. The unsettling mood is established within a graveyard (hey, it was nothing new even then but it worked) as David recounts to his fellow derelicts how Georges took the reins of the eponymous vehicle by being the last soul to die before midnight, a fate that also befalls David. Georges thus becomes the bridge between the world of the dead and the world of the living in that he uses a second flashback to recount the downward spiral in David’s life that estranged him from his wife. Like Marley’s ghost before him, Georges becomes in death that truest of friends who teaches via confession of his own mistakes. Lifting the veil of his cloak, Georges puts a human face on a tale that Poe might have been proud to have written.

Along the way, however, the ghoulish translucency of the carriage and its shadowy helmsman, rendered through a revolutionary use of double exposure, shows us an age when special effects were creepy and unnerving without being gory or gaudy. Though it doesn’t have the disturbing set designs or well-honed structure of its similarly ground-breaking predecessor The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the less heralded Phantom should be on the to-watch lists of all silent film lovers or those with a taste for the macabre. Hop in, my friends, and cross over to the other side.

Joe’s Grade: A


  8 Responses to “The Phantom Carriage (1921): Traveling Into the Abyss and Back”

  1. I’m intrigued, since I love Bergman. Fanny & Al, Scenes From a Marriage, Seventh Seal, Winter Light, The Silence, Smiles Of A Summer Night being my favs. What are some of yours?

    It’s not complex or terribly clever on plot, but the Danish film Vampyr is stunning for its imagery and clever use of what were then cutting edge special effects (mostly done in-camera). For some reason the visual above made me think of it.

  2. Oh, God, and how could I forget Persona and Cries and Whispers?!?!

    • Of the Bergman films I’ve seen thus far, I would say Virgin Spring tops the list, with Seventh Seal a close second. As you can tell, I’m a sucker for films with moral/religious philosophical themes:) I also love Through a Glass Darkly (unbelievable performance by Harriet Andersson). I found Winter Light intriguing but depressing and I confess I still need to watch the Silence. (I had just ordered the “trilogy” recently.) Sounds like you’re ahead of me, I’m ashamed to admit:) I’ve seen Persona, which I found weird and perhaps a bit gratuitously sexual, although no doubt it’s a deep and, as Ebert said, highly challenging film. Still need to see Fanny and Alexander, Cries and Whispers, and Smiles of a Summer Night. Probably should have seen them all before even doing this review but I noticed what seemed like several similarities in the Bergman films, so I decided to do it now lest I forget:)

      I at least have seen all of Dreyer’s major films (it’s easier with a much smaller corpus:). Agree with you about Vampyr, a tremendously atmospheric film with very eerie lighting but one that’s also pretty absurd and disjointed. Still, I love in particular that creepy vampire assistant character and the music. Dreyer’s Joan of Arc is one of my favorite films thus far. Also adore Gertrud.

      • BTW, on a completely different note, I’ve been listening to Sokolov in light of what you’ve said about his unstable tempi, and I have to say I’m hearing a lot of what you’re saying, or more accurately, I heard it before but now it’s bothering me more. I love rubato, but sometimes he does things that make the music spineless or that go against the structure. His Brahms Op. 116 are particularly dreadful in this regard. I like some of the Chopin more than you but I really don’t cotton to his Brahms. His Diabellis also disappointed. (Oddly, I was introduced to him because someone read my review of Ugorski’s Diabellis and said if I liked that I’d like Sokolov, as his approach is very similar. Don’t hear it myself.) People have told me you must hear him live and the big deal is the sound he coaxes out of the piano, which isn’t captured adequately by microphone. Fair enough, that was my experience with Celibidache. And I’m glad to have his quirky interpretations alongside my less eccentric go-to choices. It’s interesting that there are many dozens of recordings that have been made of his performances over the years (decades) yet he has okayed only a handful for release. Much is available in bootleg form, however.

        • I listened to a portion of his Brahms 116 on Youtube and I too find it dreadful. Speaking of dreadful, have you checked out any of the live streaming of the Van Cliburn competition? It goes without saying that most of the playing is pounding and/or colorless but the face-making and straining of the competitors is worse, and funnier, this time around than I’ve seen it before. It might be good for a laugh if you’re in that type of mood.

          • Where can I hear the VC winners?

            Yes, I did not like Sokie’s Op. 116 at all. I found some Schubert that was far more promising, from what I heard

          • It’s on cliburn.org. They just announced the finalists for the concerto portion of the competition. Pleased to see that the one I had initially predicted would win is in the final round. Vadim Kholodenko. His playing wasn’t very interesting really, but anyone who’s got the guts to play the LIszt Transcendentals in a competition deserves it in my book:)

            Interesting about the Schubert, although being my favorite composer and playing it a fair amount myself, I suppose that’s some of the music I’m pickiest about:) I love Richter’s Schubert when he’s on and sometimes Schnabel’s got a nice sound and orchestration. That reminds me, if you haven’t heard it, there’s a wonderful recording of Richter paired with Benajmain Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival where they play the Schubert Grand Duo. And boy do they play it! Messy in places but extremely spontaeous and wonderfully orchestred. About that recording I would say the same thing that Entremont said about Cortot — even their wrong notes are great:)

          • > That reminds me, if you haven’t heard it, there’s a wonderful recording of Richter
            > paired with Benajmain Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival where they play the Schubert
            > Grand Duo. And boy do they play it!

            Funny you should mention this. I just got it last week. Imported it into my iTunes but haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet.

            When my wife was in grade school, her choir sang a Britten piece. He found out about it, and, gentleman that he was, wrote them all a thank-you letter.

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