The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★

Perhaps unfairly, most people's experience, and in extreme cases knowledge, of Swedish cinema goes as far as Ingmar Bergman and completely ends there. As one of the majorly great directors in the history of film, it makes sense why people would see Bergman as the flagship representative of his country's film output, and why other Swedish directors would feel intimidated by just how widespread his name and work has become to try and follow up. Without Victor Sjöström, however, there would be no Bergman, and that's not just referring to Sjöström's crown as "The King of Silent Film" in his country, but also because his film The Phantom Carriage was the spark to Bergman's love with film, the film that Bergman would consider his favorite of all time and watch every year on his summer retreat to his personal cinema. Upon viewing it's not hard to see what enraptured the young Swede so, as it accomplishes a very naturalistic and reflective sense of dread to go with mesmerizing darkness and the long path of suffering and repentance.

On New Year's Eve, the last man to die before the stroke of midnight takes the reigns of Death's carriage, collecting souls for the entirety of the new year. The eerie folklore is recounted by David Holm, a sinner surrounded by his drinking buddies, in flashbacks unfolding onto flashbacks, informing us of the hopelessness that could soon be Holm's fate and highly suggestive of the bleakness that is his wasted life. It's striking seeing the man who bears Death's visage collect recently-departed souls, partly because of the double-exposure effects utilized (which still manages to be very effective in its supernatural archaic nature) and partly for how inescapable Death and his carriage truly is, able to travel on the floor of an ocean to collect a drowned soul and compel those who resist to escape from their prisons that is their mortal bodies. Through ghostly life the tale introduces itself in a spine chilling manner, an emptiness that's slowly revealed to be hinged onto Holm and his mistakes in life.

The bulk of the film focuses less on mortality and instead on morality, where David must listen to his downward spiral that was his life in painfully detail examination. Alcohol is his main vice, driving him away from his carefree duties as a family man to a spiteful, menacing drunkard, growing more and more wretched as his heart freezes over the more liquor he ingests. Hatred dissolves the man, reducing him to a meatbag that spreads pathogens to the innocent out of misanthropic bouts, as he searches the country for the wife that left him, unable to live with a man so affected to debauchery, and changed by substance abuse. The avalanche of guilt wounds Holm in his afterlife, left to hear the many ways he was offered chances of redemption, all of which were denied as a preconceived failure of living a decent life, and while repentance isn't completely too late for the tortured soul to accept, the agony of what he's done and who he's brought down in his misery is something David has to absorb in the process.

My exposure to silent cinema is somewhat limited, but The Phantom Carriage rightfully earns a spot as among the best I've seen yet, one that sways and evolves from its despair into a haunting revelation on the importance of life, as well as the tears and fears from others forced to exist near acts of ruthless selfishness. Alluring at first glance with its gloom and mysticism (a job helped by the score, a creepy ambiance achieved by the drones and chord feedback of the duo KTL), the grimness is a necessary aspect to grasping the power that true penance holds, in understanding the value of life by suffering through all the worst aspects the human heart can withstand before it beats no more. It achieves its label as a horror film not by the presence of the supernatural, but by our own horror at witnessing the uninhabited anti-hero David becomes, assisted with a remarkable performance by Sjöström himself that shows the drunken beast of life and the frightened entity of bereavement that encompasses David. Truly poetic, especially as it nearly reaches a century of existing to show people the power of cinema just as it did to a younger Bergman.

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