The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★½

Sophisticated. That's the word that comes to mind when trying to describe Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage, a 1921 film far more ambitious and accomplished than virtually any of its peers. Based on a novel by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, the skeleton of the film's story bears a certain resemblance to A Christmas Carol: a villainous man is visited by a spectral presence and forced over the course of an evening to ruminate on his past sins. Yet rather than coming off as a trite Dickensian knockoff, this film creates a mood all its own. Combining expressionist horror tropes with the family tragedies of Strindberg, The Phantom Carriage is a finely-crafted marvel of cinematic storytelling.

Sjöström himself plays David Holm, a drunken, consumptive bully who dedicates his life to making others suffer. One New Year's Eve, after accidentally being killed in a fight, Holm discovers that he must now become the driver of the titular carriage, and will spend the next year escorting souls to the afterlife. Most of the film centers around David's conversations with the retiring driver (Tore Svennberg) as the two spirits discuss the events that turned David into such a spiteful man. Using a series of flashbacks (and flashbacks-within-flashbacks), Sjöström charts David's descent from a loving husband and father to an alcoholic who projects all of his self-hatred towards every innocent person in his path. In particular, the film emphasizes David's relationship with two women: his wife (Hilda Borgström) who lives in fear of him and the Salvation Army nurse Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) who thinks that he can still be redeemed. This all leads to a final reel where all characters, physical and ethereal alike, collide in imaginative and startling ways.

This simple synopsis really doesn't do justice to the film's elaborate narrative form, however. The story is nonlinear and bordering on experimental, but it still maintains the momentum of a top-notch horror movie. Likewise, the action is narrated by multiple characters at various points, and the shifts in perspective are handled amazingly well for a film from the silent era. Granted, the film still relies heavily on intertitles to provide plot exposition, but the several layers upon which The Phantom Carriage operates visually never get confused. Though I have no evidence to suggest that Orson Welles was even aware of this film, I cannot help but feel as though the rudimentary playbook for the "Matryoshka doll" structure of Citizen Kane was actually developed in Sweden twenty years prior.

And just like Citizen Kane, The Phantom Carriage is a technical marvel light years ahead of its contemporaries. Though I love silent films, I often find that I need to calibrate my expectations of them to account for the technical limitations imposed upon its earliest progenitors. With this movie, there was no need to do so. Its special effects (highlighted by a multiple exposure technique to make the spirits semi-opaque) get a justified amount of praise, but they are only one of this film's innovations. Where other movies of the era feel like two-dimensional tableaux, here the cinematography by Julius Jaenzon has a richness and vibrancy that gives the picture an incredible depth of field. Similarly, the use of natural light sources (on-screen lamps and candles, mostly) creates beautiful contrasts from shot to shot that lends itself perfectly the film's mysterious mood. And the acting (accentuated by Sjöström's judicious use of close-ups) feels far more naturalistic, refined, and modern than what was de rigeur for the early 1920s.

I could go on about the delights of The Phantom Carriage, but I will leave them for the viewer to discover. Just know that it is a beautiful and mature work that deserves every ounce of its lofty reputation. After all, there's a very good reason why Ingmar Bergman watched the film over a hundred times, and why Stanley Kubrick saw fit to plagiarize an entire scene of this film and make it into one of the most iconic moments of his career.

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