the phantom carriage
dir. victor sjöström
A lot can be said of The Phantom Carriage; a lot of which I don’t yet have the ability to say. Historically, it’s a landmark in Swedish cinema, and had a profound impact on Ingmar Bergman, which, to the extent that I’ve seen his work (which will be greatly expanded during this first wave of Rosebud) I can certainly see. While this film probably went more into special effects than Bergman ever did, it’s a character study like no other, and digs at the gut of existential issues that Bergman returned to time and time again.
It’s New Year’s Eve, heading into 1921 (the film would be released New Year’s Day, no doubt creating an eerie sense of urgency with these first audiences). We learn the legend of the Phantom Carriage: whoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is doomed to drive the Carriage for the next year, picking up the souls of the dead. It turns into a tale of redemption for the protagonist, David Holm: a drunkard who has spent the last year of his life making mistake after mistake, finally being given a chance to make amends.
The special effects are pretty remarkable given the age of the film. Double exposure creates a ghostly atmosphere, where characters and carriages move about transparently. It’s a tremendous step forward from the stop-and-go effects of Méliès just twenty years prior, and seems to mark a major milestone in the acceptance of film as an artform; the post-production process was truly a task, which required months of care by the production team. This too marked a major step forward: just a decade or two past the sideshow films of Edison and the Lumiéres, film flexes its potential, and demands to be taken seriously.
“Lord, let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped…”
The narrative structure too seemed quite advanced for its time. Its extensive use of flashbacks (some within other flashbacks) did get cloudy at times, but I’m sure it will reward another viewing. Bergman was said to have watched it annually, which might be a bit extreme, but also perhaps not; it’s an absolute must-see from the era, and for anyone curious to see the foundation of the horror genre.