Written by Greg Barbrick
Swedish director Victor Sjostrom’s (1879-1960) The Phantom Carriage (1921) is a profoundly emotional film, and was a seminal influence on a young Ingmar Bergman. Sjostrom also starred in this cornerstone of Swedish cinema. It stands with such groundbreaking early works as D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance (1916) as a masterpiece of early filmmaking technique, and helped elevate the medium to the highest form of art.
In the opening scene we find a young Salvation Army girl named Edith (Astrid Holm) on her deathbed. It is obvious that the woman is very sick, and possibly delirious with tuberculosis – yet all she desires is to see a man named David Holm (Victor Sjostrom).
Edith’s stark hospital room then gives way to a graveyard, where David Holm and two skid row buddies sit drinking and trading stories. It is New Years Eve, and the talk turns to an old Swedish fable about Death’s carriage. As David relates the story first told to him by Georges (Tore Svennberg), the last soul to die in the year becomes the driver of the carriage for the following year. The task is said to be the worst a soul could imagine, where every day feels like 100 years.
It is during the description of the phantom carriage that Sjostrom first exhibits his incredible talent for special effects. The double exposure method he uses to show the horse-drawn coach arriving to pick up the newly departed has a haunting, otherworldly quality that lifts the entire film into the realm of stunning visual artistry. The hand-tinted coloring of these frames adds another dimension to these scenes.
As the clock ticks closer to midnight, the trio are approached by Gustafson (Tor Weijden), a friend of Edith’s who relays her request to David. The last thing in the world he wants to do is to visit her however. His friends are incensed at his callousness, and attempt to force him go. During the tussle, Holm takes an unexpected fall, and is killed instantly, just as the clock ticks midnight. His is the final death of the year, and Death’s carriage arrives for him to take over. The driver he will relieve is none other than his old drinking buddy Georges.
In a technique that Frank Capra would borrow some 25 years later for It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), the ethereal protagonist relives the events of his life that led up to this moment. It turns out that the cruel David Holm and the young woman have a heartbreaking history. As a volunteer with the Salvation Army, she took a deep and abiding interest in trying to help him better his life, only to be rebuffed at every turn. It also appears that he is the person who gave her the TB which is now killing her. The emotional pitch of The Phantom Carriage is surprisingly, and almost unrelentingly dark, until the conclusion – where things are implausibly resolved with a happy ending.
As part of The Criterion Collection, this restored edition of The Phantom Carriage comes with some supplemental features. These include an interview with Ingmar Bergman, excerpted from the documentary Victor Sjostrom: A Portrait (1981) by Gosta Werner. The Bergman Connection is a recent visual essay by Peter Cowie regarding the influence the film had on Bergman’s career. There is an audio commentary track featuring film historian Casper Tybjerg, and two scores. The music of Matti Bye was composed for the 1998 restoration. The second is from an experimental duo who call themselves KTL.
The look of the film, and especially the carriage scenes are simply spellbinding. It is amazing to observe the care that went into every frame of The Phantom Carriage and compare them to such “ultimate” special effects achievements as high def 3-D. The differences are akin to comparing the Mona Lisa to a screensaver.
It is little wonder that Bergman cited The Phantom Carriage as one of the greatest in cinematic history, for the mystery and magic inherent in Sjostrom’s movie remain as powerful today as they must have 90 years ago. The film remains a spectacular achievement.