The Phantom Carriage (1921)
This review was originally published on June 23, 2011.
TCM screened Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921) as part of the regular “Silent Sunday Nights” feature last week. While the movie’s title seems to promise a Nosferatu-like, mid-silent period creep fest it instead delivers a melodramatic morality tale about specific social ills of the day – alcohol abuse, domestic violence, the contagion of consumption. Viewers will likely observe a narrative similarity to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol, but The Phantom Carriage is distinctly Swedish. The script is based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Nobel-prize winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, who was specifically commissioned by a Swedish association to write about tuberculosis and its prevention.
In The Phantom Carriage, David Holm is an unrepentant bad-doer who drinks, corrupts others, beats his wife, and spurns the spiritual overtures of Salvation Army Sister Edit. We find Holm on New Year’s Eve regaling other drunkards with a local legend, namely that the last sinner to die before midnight will be sentenced to drive death’s carriage for the following year. A disagreement erupts into physical violence shortly before midnight, and Holm is beaten and left for dead. Death’s carriage and its driver, Holm’s friend Georges who died the previous year, makes an appearance. Much like Dickens’ Scrooge, Holm is led through the results of the misery he has wrought, and ultimately offered a chance for spiritual redemption.
I watched The Phantom Carriage several days ago and I’ve been struggling with what to say about it ever since. Typically, in watching, thinking about, and writing about a silent movie, I consider the film from 3 different angles of attack: the (subjective, admittedly) quality of the work as a movie, the technical or narrative innovations that it may have, and it’s historical importance in terms of influencing directors, actors, and movie-making in general. The issue I’m having with The Phantom Carriage is not the lack of details in these three buckets, but the conflict I feel between them. I knew nothing about the movie before watching it, and I formed some very distinct opinions. Then, I poked around in the wider world to see what others thought, and was surprised by what I found, because those external opinions are so diametrically opposed to my own.
First, without a doubt, The Phantom Carriage achieves some dazzling technical feats. The supernatural elements of the movie, Death’s carriage, disembodied David Holm, and the ghostly Georges are represented via some complicated and beautifully executed double-exposure techniques that rival any CGI voodoo created today. The ghosts walk through walls and Holm leaves and enters his own body as if by magic. The effect is achieved so seamlessly it never disrupts the suspension of disbelief (other than an initial, “Oh my, how did that they do that!” perhaps). Even now, ninety years later, the technique remains fresh and convincing. For this reason alone, I would say that any silent film aficionado or student of film history should see The Phantom Carriage.
Second, The Phantom Carriage is ambitious in its narrative structure. Never mind that it was made in 1921, the story structure would be ambitious had the film been made yesterday. The plot unfolds in flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and stories within stories. As ghosts, Holm and Georges range over time and space, and as a director, Sjöström is demonstrating a healthy respect for the intelligence of his audience. But while the narrative structure is ambitious and innovative, I don’t feel it’s completely successful. At times, the plot feels unfocussed, jumping from situation to situation and character to character. It also leads to some ambiguity, both in understanding the basic plot and the movitivations of the characters. I had to wait almost the entire length of the film to understand why Mrs. Holm moved to throttle Sister Edit on her death bed.
The biggest failure of the narrative structure though is the disruption to the film’s pacing. As I watch more silent films, I’ve begun to feel that pacing is the Achilles heel of the silent movie, especially when viewed by contemporary viewers. Often it’s a failure of the medium itself. Bulky and stationary cameras lead to longer (in duration) shots, and often this misplaces the viewer’s focus. As noted above, early in The Phantom Carriage, Mrs. Holm moves to choke a dying sister Edit. Because of the framing and length of this shot, it seemed crucial to me in the moment. This was not born out in the movie. It was just a moment. That’s not particularly the fault of the director, it just is, but the Phantom Carriage does suffer from it. At times, I found the film boring and was wishing we could just get on with things. For me, the best silent movies are the ones that keep as tight a reign as possible on pacing (particularly on the pacing of the falling action).
My biggest complaint is the story itself, but I admit that’s a deeply personal criticism. The overtly Christian moral judgements and the (at least to me) dime-store redemption story doesn’t really ring my bell. The abiding belief that we can right our wrongs and redeem ourselves cuts to the very foundation of being human. Telling stories to illustrate that belief is also a favorite pastime of humanity. But sentimental redemption delivered in a melodramatic fashion are not my favorite stores. This is my chief complaint about the bulk of D.W. Griffith’s melodramas as well, and The Phantom Carriage feels a lot like a Griffith-by-way-of-Sweden movie.
My overall recommendation for The Phantom Carriage would be to give it a viewing. The double exposure techniques alone are worth the price of admission. So are the pretty fantastic performances, especially Sjöström’s own as David Holm. Also, like many silent movies, the shortcomings of the movie can be as instructive and enlightening as the successes, especially when viewed in the context of film history. It’s fascinating to observe early filmmakers wrestle with technical and narrative problems, and often truly invigorating to see their novel solutions for those problems even when the solutions are not entirely successful. I would rate The Phantom Carriage in the upper range on this scale.
Those were my impressions and conclusions after watching The Phantom Carriage. However, I feel obligated to tell you that the movie is IMPORTANT, though I’m still all kinds of confused as to why. Sjöström is certainly an important Swedish film director, and had a long mentor-mentee relationship with Ingmar Bergman, right up to Bergman casting Sjöström in “Wild Strawberries” and paying homage to The Phantom Carriage in The Seventh Seal. Reportedly, he first encountered the movie at the age of 15 and rewatched it every New Year’s Eve. Bergman even desscribed it as “the film of all films.” And I don’t… get it. It’s a good movie, but is it foundational? I know that I personally have an unrelenting and irrational affection to some things that I dsicovered when I was 15, but surely that can’t be the only reason for Bergman’s infatuation with The Phantom Carriage.
Unfortunately, most of the critical reviews and analyses that I dug up of The Phantom Carriage rate it as a masterpiece because Ingmar Bergman does so. Citations about Bergman’s repeated viewing, the above mentioned quote, the use of its imagery in The Seventh Seal – these add up to the movie being foundational. But there’s rarely a reference to any component of the film itself. While it’s probably fair enough to say that a movie that influenced The Seventh Seal is important, I would like to further understand why because I really just don’t see it. But I do welcome counter arguments!
The Phantom Carriage related links:
- IMDB entry
- TCM Silent Sunday Nights
- Wonders in the Dark
- Pre-order the Criterion release from Amazon
- Download from the archive.org
- Review from filmfanatic.org
Watch Bergman on Sjöström on YouTube