The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Director: Victor Sjöström
Cast: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg
Synopsis: On New Year’s Eve, the driver of a ghostly carriage forces a drunken man to look back at his wasted life.
There’s an old Scandinavian tale that says the last sinner to die before New Year’s Eve is fated to drive Death’s carriage for the following year and collect the souls of those damned to hell. As afterlife destinies go it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? At least it delays spending eternity in a fiery pit. But as Georges (Tore Svennberg), the former drinking partner of dissolute drunkard David Holm (Victor Sjöström) informs him, each day is like a thousand years — and the job satisfaction can’t be great. And Georges should know, because for the past year he’s been the one at the reins of the transparent carriage that’s pulled by a tired and sad looking horse. Unfortunately for David, the time is just past midnight on 1st January, and he was the last of the previous year’s sinners to cash in his chips.
The story of The Phantom Carriage is based on a 1912 novel by Selma Lagerlöf, and bears a resemblance to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in as much as the protagonist is taken on a journey back through key moments of his life by Death’s agent. It has to be said that David isn’t one of life’s little rays of sunshine, that’s for Sure, having squandered a number of shots at redemption offered to him by an angelic Salvation Army member called Edit (Astrid Holm). In fact, as David is taken on his journey through his life, Edit lies dying of consumption, which she contracted from him.
Director Victor Sjöström awarded himself the lead role of David, and gives a performance way ahead of its time in terms of naturalistic expression. While many of his contemporaries still performed as if they were playing to the galleries, Sjöström’s delivery is convincingly understated. When he smiles while sat with his drinking buddies you can sense the malevolence that hides beneath that smile. Holm feels hard done by. Once a decent family man, he was led astray by Georges, an episode which Sjöström succinctly captures by replacing one idyllic scene of a family picnic with that of Holm, his younger brother, and Georges getting plastered in the same field in which the picnic took place.
David’s drinking earns him a spell in prison, and when he’s shown his younger brother in a nearby cell, awaiting sentencing for killing a man whilst drunk, he determines to mend his ways. But he returns home to find that his long-suffering wife has run off with their two daughters, and bitterly returns to his old pattern of self-destructive behaviour while vowing to find his wife and make her pay for deserting him..
To those not versed in the style and technique of silent cinema, The Phantom Carriage would no doubt seem to be a laborious piece of work with out-dated special effects, but back in its day it was ground-breaking stuff. Cinematographer Julius Jaenzon’s use of double exposure to create the ghostly effect of the carriage and its rider was far more sophisticated than anything attempted up to that date, and contributes enormously to the haunting and forbidding atmosphere of the film. However, The Phantom Carriage is not primarily a tale of the supernatural, but rather a study of the frailties of humans and the implications and repercussions that the decisions we make in life can have on those around us.
Sjöström’s use of a non-linear narrative was also something new, with flashbacks — and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks — used to piece together the puzzle of David’s life, why he became the cruel, unfeeling man he is, and his connection to the dying Edit. In this respect, the film is unusually complex for its time, and although even lovers of silent cinema might find that the pace drags on occasion, The Phantom Carriage remains remarkably potent and technically impressive more than 90 years after it was first released.