Directed by Victor Sjöström
Woe to those whose lives are mired in sin! For we all must face a terrible reckoning at the twilight of our lives. When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, we face one final journey, one final voyage to that eternal palace, or to that infernal pit. But to those who fear the road before them, fear not! For the road will not be a lonely one. Accompanying us on that grim passage is a guide garbed in black who has made the trip countless times. Do not mistake him for his dour master known simply as Death, for he is just a servant. Cloaked in black and carrying a sinister scythe, this chauffeur drives a decrepit carriage pulled by a tireless horse. For him, an hour on earth becomes a hundred years. What crime, what terrible deed must he have committed to be tasked with this terrible employ? Simply being a victim of the tyranny of the clock. For every New Year’s Eve, the last unfortunate soul to die before the stroke of midnight must become Death’s valet for the New Year, and the driver of the Phantom Carriage.
First told in 1912 by Nobel-prize winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, the story of the Phantom Carriage has been told several times in the history of cinema. But no adaptation has been as stunning, and as vital, as the 1921 version directed by and starring Victor Sjöström. A truly revolutionary film, The Phantom Carriage takes its place alongside the other great silent horror films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1921), and Faust (1926). Like its compatriots, The Phantom Carriage is a moody, sinisterly atmospheric film. But unlike the other films mentioned which liberally created new universes out of expressionist sets and painted shadows, The Phantom Carriage takes place in a grimly realistic world filled with broken, yet believable characters. When Sjöström thrusts the audiences into the realms of the unreal, the audience shivers, for they see a haunted reflection of the world around them.
The story centers on a drunkard named David Holm (Victor Sjöström), a once respectable family man who fell into a bottle and never crawled out. Once a proud husband and father, he has been reduced to a derelict content to drown his sorrows with his fellow miscreants. On a cold New Year’s Eve, he sits in a graveyard and tells his friends the tale of the Phantom Carriage. But once the story ends, a fight breaks out and David is struck down dead in the street. To his horror, his astral form sits up from his body and watches as an ancient carriage pulls up beside him. Its driver looms over him and pulls off his hood, revealing himself to be his old friend Georges who had died the previous New Year’s Eve.
David regards his old friend with shock and dismay for his poor fortune. But Georges has no time for pleasantries. Georges is on a mission to take David on a tour through his life and show him how he has fallen from grace. Much like Jacob Marley, he will carry his Scrooge through the halls of the past to face ancient sins and transgressions. David is forced to watch how he abandoned his dear wife Anna for drink. In one terrible scene, we watch as Anna locks him in a small room to keep him from infecting their children with tuberculosis. In a terrible rage, he chops the door down with an axe and pounces on his family.
He must watch as he is jailed for drunkenness. Even worse, he is forced to relive his friendship with a young Salvation Army girl named Edit who introduced him to Anna and later took care of him after falling out with Anna. In his delirious state, he infected her with tuberculosis and abused her. Now dying, Georges takes David to her bedside. The poor girl had always blamed herself for David’s misfortune. After all, she was the one who introduced him to Anna. But in a moment of mercy, David kisses her hands and tells her that he is okay. Relieved, Anna peacefully drifts off to her final sleep.
But David’s trip is not over. Georges takes him to his old house where they encounter Anna getting ready to kill herself and their children. David begs Georges to stop her, but he responds that he has no power over the living. In a moment of desperation, David cries out to Georges and God to have mercy on his poor soul and let him interfere. He is miraculously restored to life and humbles himself to Anna, begs for her forgiveness, and swears to be a better man. In this scene, Sjöström reveals his film to be a grim, supernatural morality tale for all poor sinners.
In watching The Phantom Carriage, it is impossible to both be unaffected by the story and unimpressed by the sheer scope of Sjöström’s craftsmanship. Filmed in only three months with a script that took only eight days to write, The Phantom Carriage was a watershed film for both narrative structuralism and the use of special effects. The film is filled with flashbacks, a technique that was revolutionary for its time. In fact, there are even scenes where there are flashbacks within flashbacks, creating three levels of narrative for the audience to follow.
But what the film is most remembered for is its eerie special effects. As mentioned before, The Phantom Carriage did not use German Expressionistic sets. Instead, when they needed to hearken the audience towards the supernatural, they would frequently use superimposition to place make figures and objects appear ghostly. Take the scene early on where the driver of the carriage collects the soul of a man who committed suicide: a transparent figure walks to the still body, pulls the man’s soul out, and escorts him back to the carriage with his body still on the floor. Or how about another ghastly scene where the carriage rides over an ocean and the driver descends to the bottom of the ocean to harvest a drowned sailor? Watching the carriage draw itself slowly over the tossed surf is as haunting an image as ever created by the German Expressionists.
Much of the credit for these effects must go to the cinematographer Julius Jaenzon and his lab assistant Eugén Hellman. The post-production of the film was a lengthy and difficult task. They would have to constantly juggle with superimpositions and double exposures. Such techniques were notorious for being challenging to pull off, since they used hand-waved cameras that needed to be operated at exactly the same speeds each time that they superimposed an image. But the end result is a convincing and unsettling effect.
The Phantom Carriage is easily one of the most important silent horror films ever made. Its influence has been felt for generations. Ingmar Bergman, one of the film’s biggest fans, claimed to watch it every year on New Year’s Eve. Its influence becomes apparent when you examine the character of Death in his seminal The Seventh Seal (1957). It has even been said that Stanley Kubrick modeled the famous scene in The Shining (1980) where Jack Nicholson chops through a wooden door with an axe after the similar scene in The Phantom Carriage. But despite its importance and influence, it has remained poorly distributed and generally unseen by most moviegoers. I will not attempt to explain why, but instead bemoan the depreciation of this classic film. It remains a silent miracle, a dark triumph, and chilling warning to all those who hear the call of the ghostly rider and the Phantom Carriage.