A drunkard, celebrating new years in a graveyard, recounts a tale of the phantom carriage to his companions. The last person to die before the stroke of midnight on new years eve is forced to drive the carriage for an entire year and receive the dead on behalf of death. Much like A Christmas Carol, The Phantom Carriage outlines the misdeeds and missteps of the protagonist, David Holm (Sjöström), and helps enlighten his path.
The greatest aspect of this film that stands out while watching it, is the structure. The Phantom Carriage is able to blend flashbacks, multiple exposure shots, rapidly jump between characters and storylines, and make it feel smooth and understandable. Part of this is due to the clear story telling and flow that naturally makes it easy to follow as the audience. It also uses filters to help identify particular periods that help contrast one another seamlessly.
The early films of the 1910s and early 1920s seemed to struggle with continuity, making them hard to follow at times. Even though The Phantom Carriage feels as if it drags on from time to time, it still accomplishes more than other films I have seen from the time period. This film is a great example of executing a complex storyline in the early days of film.
Another aspect that helped reinforce the previous point is the acting by Victor Sjöström, who also adapted the film and directed it. He is able to play the angry husband and self-centered vagrant, while being able to transition to scenes of regret and selflessness.
The Phantom Carriage is also another example of an early successful horror film, accompanying films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Student of Prague, and Nasferatu, from Germany. While the story of taking a protagonist on a journey of self-reflection in order to get on the straightened path as been done over and over again. This may not have been the case in 1921. I am not sure how world wide A Christmas Carol was and film as a medium was still in its infancy, so this can be overlooked.
It is also clear that the film was memorable for filmmakers to come. Certainly Ingmar Bergman would have been influenced by the early Swedish films, but one scene I was not expecting was for Holm to take an axe to a door in order to chase down his wife and kids. This is something that Kubrick must have taken note of while working on The Shining.
Other shots standout throughout the film as well. One sequence that stood out was the mesmerizing underwater shot when Georges (Svennberg) takes the carriage into the ocean to pick up a body. I am not sure what techniques were used for this effect, but it was effective. Another technique throughout the film that was successfully executed was the multiple exposure shots that weave in the dead, ghosts, into the living and afterlife world. We see the ghosts, souls, or whatever you want to call them, interact three dimensionally within the living world. This means that multiple shots had to be superimposed in order to have the world of the afterlife interact with the living world. For example, we see the ghost of Georges behind the bid of Sister Edit (Holm), yet in front of the background. Meaning that the shots must have been sandwiched together.
I am not sure how much cinematographer Jaenzon contributed compared to Sjöström in terms of the technical aspects of the shots or the editing. Either way the film was a great example of an early well rounded and engaging film that inspired many filmmakers to come.
Directed by: Victor Sjöström
Written by: Victor Sjöström
Based on the Novel “Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!” by: Selma Lagerlöf
Cinematography by: Julius Jaenzon
Music by: Eric Westberg
Runtime: 1h 47m
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror
Distributed by: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Link to film below: