Within a few years of its release in 1921, Victor Sjostrom’s The Phantom Carriage was considered a masterpiece of the cinema, alongside such canonical stalwarts as The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Charlie Chaplin thought The Phantom Carriage was the greatest film ever made. However, as the silent era ended and Carriage’s eye-popping-for-the-time special effects became outmoded, Sjostrom’s film fell out of favor and was soon regarded as more of a relic than a milestone. Fortunately, back in 2011, the Criterion Collection deigned to release a Bluray of The Phantom Carriage.
On the surface, the film is a grim spiritual parable about the deleterious effects of alcohol. However, Sjostrom uses the supernatural trappings of the story to delve deep into human nature at its most depraved. The film ends up being a brutal morality tale about the limits of human love and good intentions in the face of abject cruelty.
On a bleak New Year’s Eve, Salvation Army nurse Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) lies dying of consumption. Her inscrutable last wish is to see David Holm (played by Sjostrom himself), who is spending the evening in a graveyard, cavorting with two like-minded ne’er-do-wells. Holm spooks his companions, recounting the legend that whoever dies this evening as the clock strikes midnight will drive death’s carriage.
Holm soon gets to experience the full force of the legend first hand, when his companions accidentally kill him during a tussle just as the clock begins ringing in the new year. Death’s carriage comes to claim Holm’s twisted soul and, via a series of flashbacks, Holm is shown the highlights of his wayward life, especially where it intersected with Sister Edit.
While it may sound like a dry run at It’s A Wonderful Life, The Phantom Carriage is a pitch-black look at action and consequence; the title of the novel it’s based on, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness, is far more evocative and to the point. God sends the insolent, cold-hearted bastard David Holm the pure hearted Edit, who nightly prays that Jesus will bless Holm, all the while developing consumption she contracted via contact with Holm’s filthy rags. Lars Von Trier would be hard-pressed to come up with a scenario as darkly ironic as this one.
A large part of Carriage’s success is due to Sjostrom’s David Holm. Holm is a monster of the id, blundering through life, steered only by his drunken head and black heart. He divides his waning time between joyless hedonism and callous abuse of those closest to him. Sjostrom’s soul-bearing performance (allegedly based on his own irresponsible lout of a father) dares the audience to have any sympathy for Holm. One of Holm’s cruel pastimes involves aiming his tubercular coughs at innocent bystanders. “I cough in people’s faces in the hopes of finishing them off,” he boasts. “Why should they be better off than us?”
In Holm, Sjostrom has created one of cinema’s most memorable belligerent assholes. Silent cinema is often derided for its over-the-top acting style but Sjostrom and the rest of the cast deliver performances that hold up nicely against contemporary standards. Sjostrom’s has always been best known for his performance in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. But he was just as haunted and soulful here, thirty years earlier. Despite Holm’s evil ways, Sjostrom finds the heart of the character. This is, after all, the story of Holm’s (ostensible) redemption.
As a director, Sjostrom is very controlling, setting the film in a hermetic universe of small rooms and claustrophobic, night-shrouded exteriors. Initially, the pacing feels a little too deliberate – it’s ten minutes before we even meet Holm or discover that it’s New Year’s Eve. But the plodding of the opening establishes an atmosphere of expectant dread that soon pays off.
The Criterion transfer – created in conjunction with the Swedish Film Institute – is uncanny; the images have undergone a pristine restoration, giving cinematographer Julius Jaenzon’s chiaroscuro an almost three dimensional texture.
The disc’s few extras are all extremely informative, particularly the visual essay by Peter Cowie detailing the film’s influence on Bergman and the historical/dramaturgical commentary by Caspar Tybjerg. There are two scores to choose from, a contemporary classical accompaniment by Swedish composer Matti Bye and a fascinating, brain-meltingly discordant piece by KTL – a side project of Sunn O))) avant-noise experimenter Stephen O’Malley.
(And, yes, this is the film that contains the sequence that Kubrick borrowed for the "Here's Johnny!" bit in The Shining.)