Directed By: Victor Sjöström
Starring: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg
Line from this film: "Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped"
Trivia: Director Victor Sjöström disguised himself as a poor man and spent time in the slums of Stockholm in order to prepare for this movie
Ingmar Bergman, believed by many to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, was only a boy when he first saw The Phantom Carriage, a 1921 fantasy / horror movie directed by his idol, Victor Sjöström. Yet, despite his age, this picture would have a lasting impact on the future director. “It completely overwhelmed me”, Bergman said when speaking of the film during a 1981 interview, adding that it left him “shaken to the core”. The themes of death and redemption, which figured prominently in Sjöström’s movie, would resonate with Bergman throughout his career, making their way into some of his best works, including The Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal, and Cries and Whispers. And while I don’t believe for a minute that The Phantom Carriage was, in all cases, his primary influence (Bergman’s strict religious upbringing, along with his well-documented obsession with death and the afterlife, held more sway over him and his movies than anything else), it’s easy to see why he considered this silent film “an all-encompassing emotional experience”.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and Salvation Army nurse Edit (Astrid Holm) is on her death bed. Realizing she has little time left, she asks to see David Holm, a drunk vagrant played by the film’s director, Victor Sjöström. Yet when told that the kindly nurse has called for him, David refuses to come, leading to a fight that ultimately costs him his life. But a bad night is about to get much worse for the now-deceased David; because he died moments before the stroke of midnight, he must spend the next year as the driver of the Phantom Carriage, which collects the souls of the dead and transports them to the afterlife. Before turning the reins over to him, the current driver, Georges (Tore Svennberg), shows David the error of his ways, including how his bad decisions have affected those closest to him.
While the story itself, i.e. the last man to die before year’s end takes on the role of Death for the next 365 days, is definitely interesting, it’s the manner in which Sjöström tells it that makes The Phantom Carriage such a powerful experience. Relying on a series of flashbacks that detail how the lead character, David, went from a family man with a wife (Hilda Borgström) and two young children to a hopeless alcoholic, we see not only his decline, but the negative impact he’s had on family and friends. Years earlier, while in jail for drunken disobedience, David learned that his beloved brother (Einar Axelsson), who’d looked up to him ever since they were kids, accidentally killed a man in a drunken brawl, and as a result was facing a long prison sentence.
Sjöström gives a compelling, heartfelt performance as the film’s lead (after hearing of his brother’s fate, David breaks down, a scene so poignant it will likely bring tears to your eyes), successfully conveying the character’s tender side as well as his mean streak (in one flashback, David spends the night in a Salvation Army bed, and as he sleeps, Nurse Edit mends his dirty, germ-filled coat. The next morning, David, angry at all women because his wife recently left him, tears out the patches that Edit had sewn into his jacket, making sure he does so while she’s watching).
In addition to its well-told story, The Phantom Carriage features some impressive special effects. In one early scene, where David (and the audience) first hears about the legend of the Phantom Carriage, Sjöström and his cameraman Julius Jaenzon utilize double exposures to make it look as if the carriage and its driver are transparent spirits, traveling unnoticed among the living (not bound by the elements, the carriage even rolls out into the middle of the ocean to gather the soul of a young man who’s drowned).
Though based on the 1912 novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness by Nobel prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage also has quite a bit in common with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (a spirit guides a sinner through key moments from his past, showing him the mistakes he’s made). And like that classic Holiday tale, Sjöström’s film is both an effective ghost story and a moving, dramatic portrait of a man whose life has gone very, very wrong.