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I Bet You Didn’t See… The Phantom Carriage

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

Directed by: Victor Sjostrom

Screenplay by: Victor Sjostrom

Based on: “Korkarlen” by Selma Lagerlof, 1912

Starring: Victor Sjostrom, Hilda Borgstom, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm

Released: January 1st, 1921.

My Rating: 8/10

Contains Spoilers!!!

I was quite amazed at ‘The Phantom Carriage’. I had come across it in my early days of researching old films, and it was surrounded with rave reviews. It encompasses so much in terms of filmmaking and should be seen as a ‘must see’ for cinema history lovers, horror film lovers, silent movie fans and film students. Being a Swedish film foreign film fans may want to give it a go as well.

The film tells the story of David Holm, a drunk who tells his friends the story of a phantom carriage that is driven for the year by the last person who dies on New Year’s Eve. They become Death’s servant and must collect the souls of the dead throughout the year before they are replaced by the next death at midnight on New Year’s Eve. David is then knocked out in a fight at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve, and his soul awakes to see an old friend, Georges, who told David the story of the carriage in the first place, bringing the carriage to him to be replaced. Georges then shows David his life, what evils he delivered upon his loved ones thanks to Georges leading David astray. This includes trying to get revenge on his wife Anna, who abandons him after he is arrested for drunken behaviour. David sees the error of his ways and Georges returns David to his physical body, and he stops his wife killing herself and their children, promises to make things right and repents his sins.

A see-through ghost before CGI

Being made in the very early days of cinema, it is unsurprising that ‘The Phantom Carriage’ is held in such high regard in Swedish Cinema history. During the early days of cinematography, if you wanted to use a technique you usually had to go to the lab that was in the studio lot and create the lens or camera yourself. It was also during a boom in the use of ‘Double Exposure’, the technique of superimposing one image on top of another. ‘This means that when you seen the carriage for the first time, the ghost carriage and driver (later with David in the scenes too) are see-through. This was a popular technique because it fascinated viewers and what is more impressive is that the camera’s used to film ‘The Phantom Carriage’ were hand cranked. The camera operators had to know the correct pace at which they cranked the original reel and do that exact pace against when filming over it for the double exposure. This is a common practice now and relatively easy to pull off on all modern editing software, but if you got it wrong back then there was a lot of work to re-do.

Beautiful texture was used in the scenes

Victor Sjostrom is seen as one of Sweden’s first star-directors and as part of Svenska Biografteatern (Swedish Cinema Theatre - Sweden’s first major production studio, link to the Swedish Film Institue), got involved in making many adaptations of acclaimed Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof’s work. Lagerlof became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909, and the production studio made a deal to produce many of her works. Sjostrom was also known for his insistence of filming on-location, which was not done often back then. Ironically, when a location was suggested for scenes within ‘The Phantom Carriage’, Sjostrom opted for shooting on set for ‘technical reasons’.

Keeping on with revolutionary techniques, lots of interesting uses of camera and continuity are at play in this film. Several scenes shot internally, particular within David’s family’s apartment buildings, are shot as if through a keyhole. The focus of the scene, for example David himself knocking at the locked door of his family apartment before discovering he has been abandoned, is framed through a ring. The outside scenes fill the screen (4:3 screen, as they were shot in back then) but these few internal hallway scenes make the viewer feel like you are spying on the character. We also see wonderful continuity, and switches in camera angles. In ‘The Phantom Carriage’, we see numerous scenes where something happens and the camera changes angle, but the continuity is kept perfectly.

Tore Svennberg (centre) as Georges and Sjostrom (centre right) as David

This breaks the 180-degree rule in filming, which I don’t think had been established at this point. One example is in a flashback when David is telling the story of Georges, Georges is in a corner watching three man at a table playing cards. The camera turns to Georges’ point of view, and we see the men position one at the head of the table and two closer to the camera and either side of him. Then, the camera moves 90 degrees, and the three men are in the same positions. Even to the point when the camera flips back to the original POV position after Georges has broken up a fight and sat at the table, everyone is in the same places, hands on chairs and tables in the same places as the previous shots. Sjostrom made a real focus on the continuity, consciously or not, which really stood out to me. So often in modern cinema do we see simple mistakes made that get slated, or have the micky taken out of them, but I found it quite wonderful that a few times in the film continuity was kept.

"Heeeere's Johnny! I mean David!"

Slid in among all this I found a poignant reflection on something very topical. Death and reflection are the main subjects of the film but slipped in are comments about the infectious nature of a disease that is spreading slowing. A Sister in the Salvation Army, who crosses paths with David and his family throughout the flashbacks, is dying of it and David is a carrier. His wife, Anna, tells him to (paraphrasing the film) not infect the children if he is going to insist on not getting help. He is suffering from Consumption, which was an awful disease at the time. It gave me a little reflection of what is happening 100 years later. No more need be said. The opening to this scene is the influence to Jack Nicholson's iconic "Here's Johnny!" scene in The Shining (1980).

Finally, the music was intense. It being a silent film, I was watching it with English subtitles for the speech cards that come up throughout. But the music that was played throughout was an underscore and put the eerie atmosphere into play. I am a fan of the American Science-Fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, and I would say that the music in ‘The Phantom Carriage’ would not go amiss among adaptations of his work. It was intense noise, sometimes on the very edge of my tolerable frequency range. It softened at the right moments and grated at your ears at others, but it was never out of place. I really hope that was intentional because it made a big impression on me.

For me, ‘The Phantom Carriage’ is a historical gem. There are so many little things in the film we take for granted in the main-stay cinema we are all used to, and a history behind it that very few really know. It comes from an era where many films have been, or were thought to be, lost, but some have been found as recently as within the last decade, such as Sjostrom’s Judaspengar/The Price of Betrayal. Sjostrom also directed one of the American Film Institute’s top ten most wanted lost films in ‘The Divine Woman’ (1928) which is Greta Garbo’s only lost film. This shows just how important his work was, and how we should treasure and respect his other works.

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