PHANTOM CARRIAGE, THE (Victor Sjöström, 1920, Sweden, 89m, BW)
Also Known As (AKA)
(original title) Körkarlen
The Phantom Carriage
The Phantom Chariot
The Stroke of Midnight
Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness
Austria (alternative transliteration) Fuhrmann des Todes
Brazil A Carruagem Fantasma
Germany Der Fuhrmann des Todes
Spain La carreta fantasma
France La charrette fantôme
Greece (festival title) I amaxa fantasma
Hungary A halál kocsisa
Italy Il carrettiere della morte
Italy (alternative title) Il carretto fantasma
Japan Reikon no Fumetsu
Poland Furman smierci
Poland Woźnica śmierci
Portugal O Carro Fantasma
World-wide (English title) The Phantom Carriage
Directed by Victor Sjöström
Produced by Charles Magnusson
Written by Screenplay:
Starring Victor Sjöström
Music by Matti Bye (1998 restoration)
Cinematography Julius Jaenzon
Distributed by AB Svensk Filmindustri
1 January 1921 (Sweden)
1 February 1922 (United States)
Language Silent film
On New Year's Eve, dying Salvation Army Sister Edit has one last wish: to speak with David Holm. David, a drunkard, is sitting in a graveyard, telling his two drinking buddies about his old friend Georges, who told him about the legend that the last person to die each year has to drive Death's carriage and collect the souls of everybody who dies the following year. Georges himself died on New Year's Eve the previous year.
Gustafsson, a colleague of Edit, finds David, but is unable to convince him to go see her. When his friends try to drag him there, a fight breaks out, and David is struck on the head with a bottle just before the clock strikes twelve. David's soul emerges from his body as the carriage appears. The driver is Georges. Georges reminds David of how the latter once lived a happy life with his wife Anna, their two children and his brother, until Georges led him astray. As shown in a flashback that follows, David was jailed for drunkenness. Before being released from prison, he was shown his brother, who had been sentenced to a long term for killing a man while drunk. When David went home, he found the apartment empty. Furious, he became determined to track Anna down and have his revenge.
During his search throughout Sweden, David arrives at a new Salvation Army Mission on New Year's Eve. Maria does not want to answer the bell, as it is very late, but Edit lets him in. Despite his rudeness to her, she mends his coat while he sleeps. The next day, she asks him to return in one year; she had prayed that the first visitor would have good fortune for that period and wants to know the outcome of her prayer. He agrees, but before he leaves, he tears out her patches.
Georges informs David that the promise has to be fulfilled and takes him against his will in the carriage to Edit. In another flashback it is shown how Edit once found David in a bar with Gustafsson and another man. Edit persuaded the other man to go home with his wife and gave Gustafsson an advertisement for a Salvation Army meeting. At the meeting, Gustafsson submitted himself to God, but David remained completely unrepentant. Anna was at the meeting, but David did not recognize her. Later, Anna told Edit who she was, and Edit tried to effect a reconciliation. At first, the couple were optimistic, but soon David's behavior drove Anna to despair once again. One night, Anna pleaded with him not to expose their children to his consumption (the same fatal disease Edit caught from him). When he refused, Anna locked him in the kitchen and tried to flee again with their children, but fainted. He broke through the door with an axe, but did not physically hurt her.
When Georges arrives in Edit's room, she begs him to let her live until she sees David again. She thinks she is the one to blame for his magnified sins, as she brought the couple together again. When David hears this, he is deeply moved. He kisses her hands, and when Edit sees his regret, she can die in peace. Georges does not take her, saying others will come for her. He then shows David that Anna, afraid of leaving her children alone after she herself dies of consumption, is planning to poison them and herself. David begs Georges to do something, but Georges has no power over the living. Then David regains consciousness in the graveyard. He rushes to Anna before she can act. With great difficulty, he convinces her that he sincerely wishes to reform.
A man passes away at midnight on New Year's Eve, and consequently must take over the job of driving the chariot of the dead for the next year. In doing so he comes face to face with the consequences of his actions while he still lived. I could sum up this story very simply by pointing out that this movie is essentially a variation on a very well-known story; however, to do so would give away the ending and I have no intention of doing that. Part of the reason is that the movie is singularly powerful; the main character handles his inner pain by drinking and becoming cruel and mean, and there's something heartbreaking at seeing the petty nature of some of his cruel deeds.
In particular, a sequence where he spends the night at a mission and discovers in the morning that one of the volunteers has sewn up the holes in his coat results in some truly stupid and mean behavior on his part. Another reason is that the movie stands so well on its own that it should be viewed on its own merits, and not as a variation on another story. The fantastic aspects are truly wonderful; the visions of the rickety transparent carriage driving through the streets, and Death sadly carrying the souls of the departed into the carriage are wonderful It's one of those movies that does such a wonderful job of balancing the fantastic and the dramatic, and it remains another unknown silent classic of Fantastic cinema. This one is highly recommended.
Victor Sjöström's silent horror The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) draws directly from the 1912 novel of the same name by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, while also channeling the spirit of Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. A deadly serious parable of irresistible temptation, moral despair and the possibility of change, Sjöström's film has been remade twice, as Julien Duvivier's La charette fantôme (1939) and Arne Mattsson's Körkarlen (1958), as well as clearly inspiring Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life (1946), whose cheery optimism it haunts like a dark doppelganger.
Without question, though, the filmmaker whose work has been most influenced by this classic is Sjöström's fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman, who would replay the film's encounters between 'hero' and Reaper in The Seventh Seal (1957), who would cast Sjöström himself as a man looking back over the emptiness of his life (and, in a dream sequence, meeting Death) in Wild Strawberries (1957), and who would dramatise a meeting between Sjöström and Lagerlöf to view some finished scenes from The Phantom Carriage in what was to be Bergman's penultimate film, the teleplay The Image Makers (2000). That Bergman, arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, should have been so impressed by a film made when he was only three years old, attests to to the enduring impact and timeless universality of The Phantom Carriage.
It would be all too easy to reduce The Phantom Carriage to a piece of propaganda for the temperance movement, but that would be to overlook its rather sophisticated suggestion that addiction might be as much a symptom as a cause of societal ills. It would be easy, too, to dismiss the film as a mere showcase for "special effects" – and certainly its use of double exposures and match cuts to create the illusion of phantom activity is most striking – but that would be to ignore altogether both its ethical convolutions and the complexity of its narrative, whose flashback-within-flashback structure expands the events of an hour or so into the events of several years. And it would be simplicity itself to ignore The Phantom Carriage as an unwanted ghost from a forgotten and (to today's tastes) rather clunky period of cinema, but the cast (led by Sjöström himself) put in performances much closer to modern realism than silent-era histrionics, while the crispness of Julius Jaenzon's cinematography can speak to any age.
This film is a masterpiece to put it simply. Especially the double exposure made by the cameraman Julius Jaenzon. It is skillfully made even with the standards we are used to today seventy eight years later. Viktor Sjöström, the director, also plays the main character, David Holm. On the night of new years eve he is killed in a fight, and the legend says that the first one who dies on the new year, will have to work as a soul-collector in the form of a transparent ghost. There is a new soul-collector to be appointed every year.
The scene in which the alcoholic, David Holm, rises up from his dead body (like the soul is leaving his earthly body) in the churchyard (where the fight took place) is a real award for a filmloving eye. Also when the present soul-collector arrives with his horse and carriage is a beautiful but also a scary scene. David Holm recognizes this soul-collector as a drinkingfriend from earlier life. It is now his turn to take over. Just like Scrooge in Dickens story "A christmas tale", David is shown what his life and doings has led to for the people around him.
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