The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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. 

The Phantom Carriage / KörkarlenSweden
4*

Director:
Victor Sjöström

Screenwriter:
Victor Sjöström

Director of Photography:
J. Julius

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.

Within Our Gates (1920)

USA

4.5*
Director: 
Oscar Micheaux
Screenwriter:
Oscar Micheaux
Director of Photography:
Oscar Micheaux

Running time: 78 minutes

A landmark film, Within Our Gates is not the oldest film made by a black director, but it is the oldest one that has survived. It was Oscar Micheaux’s second film, made one year after his début, The Homesteader, but more importantly five years after D.W. Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a NationWithin Our Gates does not merely try to redress Griffith’s depiction of blacks in the United States: The film is edited in a way clearly influenced by Griffith, but in terms of its narrative, Micheaux’s film is vastly superior to most films of the era, demonstrating a storytelling skill that is particularly suited to the cinema. In one instance, he even anticipates the revolution of Kurosawa’s Rashomon by more than 30 years.

In 1920, Sylvia Landry, who hails from the South, is visiting her cousin Alma in the North, where “the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist—though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.” Sylvia is an educated young woman, who is romantically involved with Conrad Drebert, a soldier stationed in Canada who has asked for her hand in marriage.

However, Alma, a divorcée, has her eyes set on Conrad and through a series of events Conrad discovers Sylvia in a compromising position and has an outburst full of rage. Sylvia returns to the South – Vicksburg, Mississippi, to be precise – where she briefly helps out at a school that educates black children, but when the school’s money runs out, she goes to Boston to secure additional funds. At this point, the film really picks up speed, because it becomes clear Micheaux has no intention of neatly distinguishing between black and white characters as good and bad, respectively.

A charismatic black preacher, Ned, and a servant in the South, Efrem, are represented as backstabbers who would do anything to retain the ear of the white man. In other words, Uncle Toms. On the other hand, while many white characters are violently opposed to any kind of equality for blacks, there are a number of educated people, most importantly a Boston sociologist named Dr Vivian, who are sympathetic to Sylvia, in particular.

Dr Vivian is the only character whose development is problematic. We are shown a number of scenes, revealed as fantasies on his part, between him and the young Sylvia, and while the initial reason for his interest is stated as purely scientific, the so-called study he is undertaking sounds like a crock. In a close-up, we see one of the articles he is reading: “The Negro is a human being. His nature is not different from other human nature. Thus, we must recognize his rights as a human being. Such is the teaching of Christianity.”

What is fascinating about the film is its very rudimentary camerawork: The shots are all static. There is not a single pan in the whole film and very few close-ups, the latter usually saved for moments of intense emotion, such as Alma’s heaving bosom when she concocts an evil plan. But what Micheaux lacked during recording, he made up for during the editing process, not only by means of constructing parallel story lines, as Griffith had done, but by having these story lines metaphorically complement each other, as Abel Gance would do in Napoléon‘s “double storm scene” in 1927. He even includes two scenes, one apparently showing the real events and one the events as recounted by an unreliable witness, which anticipates the work of Akira Kurosawa’s famous Rashomon in 1950. Furthermore, besides the fantasies of Dr Vivian, there is a scene in which Efrem’s greatest fear is quickly realized when the image in his mind becomes the image on-screen.

The film is also broken into two time-frames, as the final 20 minutes are set in the South many years prior to the rest of the plot. It is a flashback that explains the context within which Sylvia has had to survive – a context we were completely unaware of, in which the lynchings of the South and the inequity of life as a black woman or man at this time in this place are made very clear. It is a brutal sequence, full of attempted sexual assault and physical violence that culminates in an amazing revelation comparable to the infamous final coup de théâtre of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

Within Our Gates is a told with limited means yet very well put together and truly remarkable considering it was the filmmaker’s second film and it was made during the infancy of the cinema. Micheaux has a real sense for storytelling and though his actors often behave in exaggerated fashion, the viewer is more accepting because of the lack of sound, and what we have is a film that serves as a concise but very powerful counterweight to the pro-white vision of the South as made popular by D.W. Griffith. At a moment of great tension in the film, the viewer cannot help but sympathize with an appeal made by Sylvia’s mother, when she asks:

Justice! Where are you? Answer me! How long? Great God almighty, HOW LONG?

Napoléon (1927)

France
5*

Director:
Abel Gance
Screenwriter:
Abel Gance

Director of Photography:
Jules Kruger

Running time: 240 minutes

Napoléon, by French filmmaker Abel Gance, is an experimental epic that has achieved the status of legend, with good reason. The story of the young Napoleon Bonaparte (the film charts his development from school boy till the age of 27, when he successfully invaded Italy) is presented as a visual feast that keeps churning out scene after scene, the one as breathtaking as the next. The entire film is accompanied by a masterful orchestral score composed by Carmine Coppola that deftly integrates melodies from a few other works, including, among others, the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”. The 2000 restoration of the film has a score by Carl Davis, which has been performed at various public screenings of the film in the past few years, most notably at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

The film is a cinematic tour de force and contains a multitude of memorable scenes, from the snowball fight at Napoleon’s school and a scene with his pet eagle to the scene where crowds of people learn the new French national anthem, a double storm scene and the climactic tricolour triptych that makes visible Napoleon’s desires for himself and his country. At one point, during a chase on horseback across the Corsican countryside, Gance even fixes his camera to a saddle in order to give us Napoleon’s point of view.

These are all scenes that one can talk about extensively, for they demonstrate the skill of the director and the joy he found in telling the adventurous story of Napoleon’s rise to power. I was incredibly moved when the song’s composer, Roget de Lisle, sang “La Marseillaise”: The soundtrack had already been hinting at the gorgeous melody for a while, since Danton, Marat and Robespierre had received word of the composer’s arrival, and when de Lisle finally performs his work, the effect is overwhelming exhilaration. The combination of the music itself, the passion on de Lisle’s face, the emotion on the listeners’ faces, in close-ups presented in rapid-fire succession, and the sunlight that pierces the stained glass windows behind them all signal this moment as a cohesive turning point for France and national unity. It is an absolute gem of a scene; if you thought the performance of “La Marseillaise” in Casablanca was wonderful, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

However, as much as this rendition of one of the country’s definitive trademarks elicits emotion in the viewer, there are even greater things to be said about the effect that a completely liberated camera can have on the viewer’s reception and interpretation of events on screen. In a well-known scene referred to as the “double storm”, Gance cuts between a physical and a metaphorical storm simultaneously brewing in different places. While Napoleon is stuck at sea on a small sailboat, the sirocco throwing him hither and thither like a wet rag doll in waters ready to swallow him at any second, people at the Paris Convention are growing more and more impatient with each other, and ultimately their event degenerates into complete chaos. At the convention, as blood begins to boil, the camera starts swinging from the ceiling, over the heads of the revolutionaries inside the enormous hall. The result is an awesome sequence of shots unlike any other I have ever seen in a film.

From the very beginning, it is clear that Napoleon Bonaparte is a testy little upstart, but rather than wanting to provoke, he acts out of pride and concern for his country. Born in Corsica in 1769, when France conquered the island, he sees himself as French, though his fellow schoolmates don’t quite agree. Napoleon has a born sense of strategy – as is made evident in a brilliantly staged fight against other boys, which he wins despite being hugely outnumbered and underestimated – and a genuine love for France. He is fearless, and his audacity leads to a moment one could compare to the scene in Birth of Nation when the Confederate flag is rescued from the front lines of the Union.

Later in the film, shortly before the sopping wet Battle of Toulon, Napoleon orders one of his officers to replace a cannon. When the officer tells him that it is impossible, Napoleon firmly asserts: “Impossible is not French!” Napoleon’s delicate features and slight frame hide a soldier with nerves of steel, eyes like a hawk, and military brawn like few others. “He is made of granite heated in a volcano”, declares one of his school teachers in Brienne.

There are many other great scenes to mention, including a pillow fight at his school that precedes Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite by more than five years and ends with a frame subdivided first into four, then nine, different angles of the same scene to reflect the different points of view of the schoolboys.

The film has rapturous energy, and while I didn’t much care for the scenes dealing with his courtship of Joséphine de Beauharnais, nor the scenes taking place shortly after their very unromantic wedding, in which he becomes a sentimental fool, writing her one letter after the other in which he proclaims his love for her and his frustration at being separated from her, the film is strong enough to cope with such whimsy.

Napoleon as a boy (Vladimir Roudenko) and as an adult (Albert Dieudonné) were both cast very well, and even at a young age, Roudenko’s eyes convey a striking maturity. Napoleon is an inspirational figure, who persuades his nation to do things they never allowed themselves to dream about, and in the process he becomes a messianic figure. A messianic figure with an instantly recognisable bicorne – something Gance teases us with when Napoleon first appears on-screen as a young boy.

The film deserves all the praise it has received. Not only did Gance make an epic film worthy of its subject, but he employed techniques unheard of at the time that served the story incredibly well and keeps the audience galloping along all the way as history unspools in front of our eyes. The film was meant to represent the first part (out of six) of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, but Gance spent his entire budget on this first instalment, and therefore Napoléon ends before the title character even gets to the throne. Nonetheless, this monumental film shows what the cinema is capable of and serves as a rousing reminder that representations of real events can be every bit as exciting as life itself.

Final note: This review refers to the 1981 edition of the film. Around the turn of the millennium, Kevin Brownlow added about half an hour’s worth of footage to restore the film to a version that approaches the original. The running time of 330 minutes on some websites refers to the film’s length when shown at 20 frames per second (fps), as opposed to the 240-minute version shown at 24fps.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

France
3.5*

Director:
Carl Theodor Dreyer

Screenwriters: 
Carl Theodor Dreyer
Joseph Delteil

Director of Photography:
Rudolph Maté

Running time: 82 minutes

Original title: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is particularly true of silent films, where one often has only the images to rely on. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc has a remarkable following and is revered as one of the best silent films. Above all, reviewers focus on the force of the lead performance, by Renée Falconetti, whose face conveys anguish and passion with great clarity and admirable conviction.

However, for all the veneration it has inspired in viewers all over the world, and I grant that Dreyer’s film has much going for it, it has never provided me with the kind of transcendental experience that other viewers have written about.

Based on the trial records archived at the Bibliothèque de la Chambre des Députés, the film prides itself on being an exact reproduction of historical events. It focuses on the interrogation of Joan of Arc in court in 1431, her obstinate refusal to disavow her statement that she is the daughter of God and her eventual execution by burning.

The problem is the same one I had with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, incidentally also very faithful to previous texts, and my objection has nothing to do with the religious content of the two films. Rather, I question the approach of a filmmaker who seems to think that the viewer would be able to fill in the big gap left by the removal of the film’s build-up. In Gibson’s film, as in Dreyer’s film, if you had never heard of Jesus Christ, or of Joan of Arc, the film simply wouldn’t make much sense, since the reason for their suffering has been wholly omitted.

In the film, Joan of Arc is supposed to be about 19 years old. At the time of the shoot, Falconetti was almost twice her age: 35. This is not a fatal disparity, but since the main character states her age in the opening scene, I found it difficult, from the very beginning, to trust anything she had to say.

And then there is the face of the film, Falconetti’s face, with eyes, says Roger Ebert, “that will never leave you”. That much is true: when I think of the film, I think of Falconetti’s face and her unblinking eyes. But that is because Dreyer spends so much time showing us her face, and Falconetti spends so little time doing anything else than trying not to blink. Her pauses are frustrating, and she remains a very opaque figure at the centre of the drama, even though it is clear that the director intended for her to seem like she was drunk on divinity. Most of the time, whenever she is asked an important question, she stares blankly at her interrogator, her eyes as big as plates.

The film is evidently on her side, not only because an opening titlecard informs us that we are about to watch the story of “a young, pious woman confronted by a group of orthodox theologians and powerful judges” (théologiens aveuglés et juristes chevronnés: blind theologians and seasoned legal experts), but also because the judges themselves are not portrayed very flatteringly: In one of the opening shots, a judge scratches his ear and examines the piece of wax on his finger. The judges often snicker at Joan’s responses to their questions and victimise her even further.

Despite my objections about its plot and the central performance, The Passion of Joan of Arc is an audiovisual gem. I watched a version with Richard Einhorn’s glorious “Voices of Light” on the soundtrack, and the experience of listening to his choir music, often accompanied by strings, and watching the stark, clean images with pure white backgrounds, sometimes in very elegant tracking shots over slightly expressionist décor, was extraordinary.

The film is intense, and many sequences stand out for provoking powerful feelings in the viewer, but Dreyer’s choice to place his central character above all else (significantly, he fails to introduce all other characters by name) makes it a very prejudiced work of art. On the technical side of the production, however, The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most beautiful films ever produced.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

USA
5*

Director:
Buster Keaton

Screenwriters:
Jean Havez

Joseph A. Mitchell
Clyde Bruckman

Directors of Photography: 
Elgin Lessley
Byron Houck

Running time: 44 minutes

Sherlock Jr. is a film that uses every trick in the book to produce electrifying moments of comedy that can still thrill audiences today. It is also a shrewd representation of the place of film in our lives.

The poster shows Buster Keaton as a detective and as a beloved (projectionist). The credits merely list him in his parenthetical capacity, and in fact this occupation embraces the central part of the film, which takes the audience on a journey full of twists and turns that is very clearly related to the first part of the story.

Keaton, the man with the expressionless face who manages to find himself in extraordinary situations, stars as a guy who wants to be a detective as much as he wants to marry the Girl, but when he is framed by another suitor in the matter of a lost pocket watch, and his detective skills fail him, he dreams up a scenario in which he is the ultimate sleuth. This part of the film is presented in a way that excites by means of its presentation and its content.

This medium-length film is interesting on many levels, and while the action transcends mere slapstick (it is not repetitive and does not have any condescension for the film’s characters), Keaton’s conception of the film’s biggest stunts makes for remarkable commentary on the perspective of the viewer. Consider the following movements:

1) During a film screening in a big theatre, with a large audience watching, Keaton approaches the big screen and walks into the film. He subsequently appears in different scenes as the film cuts from one location to the next, and Keaton has to keep up with objects that appear out of nowhere.

2) In this film-within-a-film, Keaton follows some undesirables to their hide-out. He puts a rounded suitcase with a costume inside on the outside of the window, and when he escapes from the house by jumping through the window, he is instantly covered by this costume, and the criminals don’t recognise him. This particular scene is further enhanced by a cut-away image (produced by means of a kind of double exposure, a gimmick Keaton also uses to great effect in his 1928 film, The Cameraman) when the inside of the house can be seen “through the walls”. Technically, it must have been quite a job, but the final effect is breathtaking.

There are many other instances of such trickery, and in spite of (occasionally) less than perfect editing to disguise the manner in which they were done, the products are unexpected and work very well. Two other moments specifically target the perspective of the viewer:

1) When Keaton has already “entered” the screen, the camera dollies closer and closer, until the screen fills the frame, so that any subsequent scenes or cuts would appear like any other film and we forget that we are watching a film that is also being watched by the film’s audience. In this way, the second-level film becomes just as real or just as fake as the first-level film.

2) When Keaton wakes up from his dream and looks through the window of his projectionist’s booth towards the screen, his face is framed by a very clear border, similar to the image he himself is looking at: the framed image of the film in the theatre.

While Keaton doesn’t approach his subject with the same complexity as Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, it remains a very entertaining film that touches on some important aspects of film reception. Unlike Chaplin, Keaton does not behave at all like a child, but rather like a very lucky average Joe, and since his technical skills enable a very entertaining telling of his story, he is by far the more serious director. In Sherlock Jr. he manages to craft a film that, while clearly not meant to be a feature-length idea, has enormous potential to entertain.