Complex narrative structure of Swedish ghost story is easy to follow and underlines actor-director Victor Sjöström’s impact on the development of the cinema.
Director of Photography:
Original title: Körkarlen
Running time: 110 minutes
The Phantom Carriage, a 1921 Swedish feature film directed by and starring Victor Sjöström as the boorish central character, may be the most intelligent film made during the movie industry’s first 25 years. Not only does it utilise double exposure in a sustained fashion that is rooted in the material itself and comes across very well, but it also flashes forwards, backwards and inwards with a Russian doll structure that very early on produces a story within a story within a story (i.e. a second-level hypodiegesis).
Offering a slightly different take on Dickens’s The Christmas Carol and its Ghost of Christmas Past, The Phantom Carriage is based on the eponymous novel by esteemed novelist Selma Lagerlöf, first published in 1912. It tells the story of David Holm, a bitter and malicious man who is killed just before the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. Accompanied by Death, the carriage driver who collects the spirits of the dead, he has to look back over the past year and the events leading up to his demise. In his acts, he recognises how his recklessness and lack of care for those closest to him have led to desperation, suffering and tragedy, and this recognition eventually leads to a choice that could save him from eternal damnation.
The first 30 minutes of The Phantom Carriage easily constitute the most impressive part of the production, at least from a narrative point of view. Opening on New Year’s Eve, the film presents us with Sister Edith, a Salvation Army nurse afflicted with galloping consumption (tuberculosis) and lying on her deathbed. She desperately wants those around her to bring a man by the name of David Holm to her bedside, but no one – including his wife – is able or willing to find him. Holm gets quite a build-up, as his name is mentioned frequently, and the effect on the audience is one of enormous expectation.
This first half-hour contains multiple instances of parallel cutting to compare the sober scenes in Edith’s bedroom with the carousing trio of friends drinking in the town’s cemetery. Close to midnight, the focus shifts to one of the three men: He tells a story he heard about a late friend of his, Georges, who passed away one year earlier. Inside the flashback showing Georges one year earlier, yet another story is embedded, as Georges explains that Death allegedly trades places with whoever dies last during the year. And yet, the narrative hierarchy is very easy to understand, as the film eventually slides back through the different levels of narration one by one until it reaches the narrator in the cemetery.
At this point, however, the film takes another sharp turn. We learn it is David Holm telling the story, and after falling out with his two night comrades, he is killed and left for dead. Right on cue, Death arrives on the scene, snatches David’s soul from his body and then transports him (and us) back into the past to trace the journey of bad judgement that eventually led him here to the symbolically apropos graveyard. All the while, there are cuts back to David and Death (ghostly apparitions thanks to the double exposure) to remind us of the dynamic narrative hierarchy whose actions continue to move not only in the past but also in the present.
It is obligatory to mention that actor-director Sjöström would go on to star in one of Ingmar Bergman’s most celebrated films about life and death, Wild Strawberries, and it is impossible to ignore the resemblance between the two embodiments of Death in The Phantom Carriage and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Both wear black cloaks, and their faces are covered by giant hoods. They also carry a large scythe – the physical manifestation of their function as reapers of souls.
The film is at its best when it focuses sharply on Holm, particularly because his mere presence and unpredictable nature can evoke anxiety in the viewer. However, when the focus shifts to Sister Edith, who is possessed by a wholly unreasonable desire that Holm, despite his evidently malicious and uncaring nature, have a beautiful life, it is difficult to take the film seriously. Holm is responsible for Edith contracting consumption, and yet, while they have never had a conversation, she laughably calls him, “the man I love”.
It goes without saying that Edith’s “love” for Holm goes unrequited, but while she pines for him, our empathy for her drops precipitously despite the opening scene’s very successful juggling act of creating mystery and anticipation, as well as a measure of compassion for a bedridden stranger.
The Phantom Carriage is a gem of movie. It deals with serious issues in a novel way by being formally creative, in terms of both structure and visuals, and the nearly two-hour running time flies past at a relatively brisk pace, even though the scenes are generally longer than viewers of contemporary films might be used to. Sjöström’s Holm is the protagonist, the villain and a tragic anti-hero, and he delivers a powerful re-enactment of the Damascus moment at the film’s climax.
It is no wonder this film is often considered to be among the earliest masterpieces in Swedish cinema.