Charlie Chaplin called it “the best film I’ve ever seen”. Ingmar Bergman, who saw the film over 100 times, said it’s “one of the absolute masterpieces in the history of cinema”. It’s based on a novel by the first female to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s directed by the father of Swedish cinema. It’s cited as an influence on everything from Murnau’s Nosferatu to Dryer’s Vampyr to Cocteau’s Orpheus to Kubrick’s The Shining. And author Steven Jay Schneider’s ubiquitous book names it one of the ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’–but you’ve probably never seen it. In fact, you’ve probably never even heard of it.
Released on New Year’s Day 1921, director Victor Sjöström’s film Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) is a Dickensian tale of a drunkard who realizes the error of his mispent life after he is visited by a servent of death. But while the film and Selma Lagerlöf’s source material certainly own a debt of gratitude to Dickens 1843 novel “A Christmas Carol”; it would be foolish to dismiss it as simply another version of an age old tale.
The film opens on New Years Eve with a Salvation Army nurse Edit (Astrid Holm) dying in bed. She contracted tuberculosis one year earlier and now death approaches. Her final wish is for someone to find David Holm (portrayed by the director). David is an abusive alcoholic who is spending the evening with two other drunkard friends in the local cemetery spinning yarns, including the legend that the last sinner to die before the stroke of midnight must take the reigns of Death’s chariot and spend the rest of the year collecting the souls of the dead. When David is located, he refuses to go to visit Edit and a struggle results in David collapsing dead. When the carriage arrives, David discovers that his old friend is the soul collector. Together the two of them go out into the night to visit Edit as well as the regrets of David’s terrible life.
It’s been said that getting there is only half the battle and The Phantom Carriage might best illustrate this point. It makes all the expected twists and turns that a savvy movie going audience 90-years after it was released, would expect it to make. But that’d doesn’t take away from the power of the film anymore than knowing that Ilsa doesn’t end up with Rick at the end of Casablanca, or that Rosebud was a sled or that The Wizard of Oz was probably all just a dream. It’s just a matter of fact that the story is going to seem “old hat.” But the magic lies in the colossal rabbit that Sjöström pulls out of that hat.
The Phantom Carriage is a technical marvel. A compelling film to be sure, with top notch silent film performances, but what it achieves in the area of visual effects is staggering. Sjöström’s desire to have the Carriage driver and David appear as ghosts was achieved by the painstaking process of exposing the film 2 and often 3 times in the camera. This was done once to shoot backgrounds, once to shoot the actors and once again to shoot foregrounds–creating an immersive 3-D environment where objects such as doors, tombstones and chairs in the background are able to be seen through the actors (who appear transparent) but foreground items like tables or beds or other people are solid with the actors appearing behind them. This gives the absolute illusion that the main characters are specters. If that were not impressive enough the characters are interacting with each other without the benefit of being on set together, much the same way Green Screen is achieved today with digital interactions. To top all of this off, the camera was hand cranked to expose the film, meaning that cinematographer Julius Jaenzon had to exactly replicate the hand-crank speed of the film every time he re-exposed the frames. The technicality of placing characters in the correct spots (remember they could not print the film they exposed already and see where the framing was) and hand cranking to the exact frames per second was an unheard of feat of technical accomplishment. But, if the film only offered that wonderment it would remain nothing more than a footnote for FX fetishists.
What makes The Phantom Carriage really special is the focus on character development, motivation and the loving way in which the performers are captured in the camera. Silent film, as you can quite imagine is about capturing emotion through gestures and facial expressions and not through the cold black and white of intertitles. Sjöström uses his camera to wrench emotion from his cast (and indeed from himself as David), really placing you in the framework of the story. You don’t so much sympathize with David even though he is truly a vicious man, but you come to understand through the strength of the performance that he is not purely evil -that he is a three dimensional human being with weakness but also compassion, misery and hope. And this kind of loving attention to character is what makes the ending of the film work on a level greater than a cynical audience might be willing to accept.
Criterion brings Sjöström’s masterpiece to Blu-ray and DVD in their usual extra special edition sets. But more importantly the company is shining a light on an artist that is probably only (or best) known for directing the incredible American silent film The Wind (Starring Lillian Gish) for MGM under the name Victor Seastrom and for appearing as Dr. Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Academy Award nominated film, Wild Strawberries.
The special edition release includes a pretty incredible restoration of the film removing thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices and warps. The grain is still huge and the condition of the print is what one would expect for a film that’s 90 years old, but what was so shocking to me was the absolute crispness and clarity that the film achieves in it’s Blu-ray presentation–especially considering not only the age of the print, but the method in which the multiple exposures were achieved–which should have softened the images when they were brand new in 1921.
The film contains two scores, the first a hauntingly effective chamber score by Swedish composer Matti Bye which was written and performed for the first time in 1998 which really captures the solemn mood of the film, providing ample instances of silence to punctuate some of the films darker scenes–and the second, an experimental score by the duo KTL. The disc also contains audio commentary by film historian Casper Tybjerg.
But the real bulk of the bonus material is offered up in the Visual Essay “The Bergman Connection” (18:00) in which Ingmar Bergman biographer Peter Cowie discusses, compares and contrasts both masters’ work over the course of their respective careers, discussing how the duo met, the influence Sjöström had on Bergman and the collaboration of the two on Wild Strawberries. The only complaint I have about this essay is that it’s too short, and I could have listened to Cowie talk about this, and illustrate his points will film clips for hours.
The other major bonus feature is an excerpt (15:19) from Gösta Werner’s 1981 feature documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait in which Bergman talks at length about having first seen the film and it’s “all encompassing emotional experience”. About how it made him want to be a filmmaker and how meeting Sjöström in the mid-1940’s profoundly affected, changed and molded Bergman’s fledgling career.
The final bonus feature is an interesting–if only for historical purposes–clip (4:40) of the construction of Råsunda Studios whose initial production was The Phantom Carriage and later became the home of Svensk Filmindustri.
Once again, Criterion has gone out of their way to bring a recognized masterpiece to more mainstream audiences. For me, my only exposure to Sjöström before this film was in Wild Strawberries and when I saw The Wind for the first time about 15 years ago. Wild Strawberries remains by favorite Bergman film and The Wind is a production I routinely cite as one of the greatest silent films I have ever seen. Now that we have The Phantom Carriage on DVD and Blu-Ray, might I humbly suggest that Criterion get MGM on the phone and secure the rights to The Wind. Pretty please.