One of the things about silent cinema is that it is in many ways an international language of visual images. And even though you still have the issue of intertitles dispersed throughout the film (unless you’re Buster Keaton or F.W. Murnau), the silent medium was an almost ideal place for singularly visual storytelling. And when you watch the truly great films from the period you begin to realize how much that is true and how great art holds up no matter how old it is. That’s one of the reasons why we still talk about films like Metropolis, Nosferatu, The General, The Kid, Napoleon etc. But as far as Swedish silent film classics are concerned, there is probably no greater example than Victor Sjöström’s 1921 masterpiece The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen). It also happens to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year so it feels like a good way to start a brand new year of columns on Swedish film.
The Phantom Carriage was adapted from a novel by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (titled Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! in English, same Swedish title). Lagerlöf had a deal with Svensk Filmindustri to adapt one novel of hers to screen every year for four years, from 1917 to 1921. All four films were adapted and directed by Victor Sjöström, who also starred in all of them. Sjöström already had a reputation as the leading filmmaker in the Swedish film industry, having directed both Ingeborg Holm and Terje Vigen. The former was one of the first feature length movies ever made and was also one of the first to make genuine social change, whilst Terje Vigen was the most expensive Swedish film at that time and issued in the first Swedish golden age of cinema, with the second being the 1960s with the “Swedish New Wave” if one could call it that (that is filmmakers like Bo Widerberg, Jan Troell, Mai Zetterling, Vilgot Sjöman etc).
But anyways enough backstory. The basic premise of The Phantom Carriage is that it opens on New Year’s Eve in a Swedish town. Three drunkards sit around on a graveyard waiting for the clock to hit midnight when one of them, David (Victor Sjöström), tells the story of a legend he was told by a friend of his. The legend goes that if the last person who dies in a year is a great sinner, he will be picked up by the Phantom Carriage, destined to pick up the souls of the dead, for a whole year. By accident, David is killed, and his visited by the Phantom driver (which sounds like the name of a really awesome supernatural action movie), who turns out to be the very friend who told him the legend in the first place. His former friend forces David to look back on his life and the sins and harm he’s committed.
So the story itself is in a sense basically A Christmas Carol if only Scrooge was poor and was only visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It makes for some rather dour and tragic moments throughout the film as you see David go from being a decent and nice person to hopeless, lonely and despised by virtually everyone around him. And Sjöström does a good job portraying David and making his change and downward spiral believable. But what caught me off-guard the most about the film is it’s non-linear structure which I did not expect. The film frequently cuts to flashbacks and also flashbacks within flashbacks, a full twenty years before Orson Welles did the same thing in Citizen Kane. But what’s so remarkable about these is that, although the non-linear narrative approach was relatively new in 1921 as it was still in 1941, they’re never hard to follow and never leaves you scratching your head wondering what just happened. It also helps (although this could have something to do with restoration and quality of the negative) that the nighttime scenes are tinted blue and the daytime scenes tinted in yellow, which once again makes it easier to follow events and chronology throughout the film.
I also cannot discuss the film without talking about the special effects at hand here. With most really old movies, what tends to date them the most are usually the special effects. One can always forgive them and you have to remind yourself that they were made in a time with great technological limitations. And indeed there are a few shots in The Phantom Carriage that are quite dated. But most of them, especially the ones involving the actual phantom and actual carriage, still look breathtakingly good as far as effects go. The film used a then advanced layer of double-exposure to make the phantoms and dead souls appear three-dimensional and as believable. This took a lot of hard time and work, a whole five months of post-production and every camera having to be cranked at the same speed in multiple different exposures to produce this effect in camera. So hats off to cinematographer Julius Jaenzon and lab developer executive Eugén Hellman because the work here is extraordinary.
There isn’t much else to be said about The Phantom Carriage except perhaps it just being one of the most influential films of all time. Not only the already mentioned groundbreaking special effects and narrative structure but also impacting two of the world’s most famous filmmakers: Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman. The famous scene in The Shining of Jack Nicholson chopping through a door with an axe to get to his family is taken directly from a similar scene in The Phantom Carriage. And Bergman was even more impressed and influenced by the film, going so far as to cast Victor Sjöström as the lead for his masterpiece Wild Strawberries in 1957, which also became Sjöström’s final film role before his death in 1960. One could also argue that The Seventh Seal is very much inspired by The Phantom Carriage, with the figure of death appearing and questions of guilt, sin and mortality being raised. But in any case, the film holds up remarkably well and earns its reputation as a classic of international, and indeed, Swedish cinema.