An Appreciation – The Phantom Carriage
It is said that every New Year’s Eve the last person to pass away – if they were a sinner – will become the driver of Death’s carriage. For the next full year, this poor soul will travel the world collecting the souls of the departed until the following New Year’s Eve, when the next person will take over. This is the framework of Victor Sjöström’s masterful silent film from Sweden, The Phantom Carriage (1921). Adapting the novel by Selma Lagerlöf, Sjostrom created a penetrating character study within a supernatural realm. Compassionate, thought provoking, and deeply moving, this is one of the very best offerings of the silent era.
Perhaps it’s one of the best because it doesn’t fit into any specific genre. It does contain fantastical elements – ghosts, spirits, and the tender balance between life and death – but it’s not really a horror film. There’s love, kindness, and the connection between people, but it isn’t a romantic melodrama in the traditional sense. What Sjöström did as a writer, director, and star was to mold this into a piece of art that resembles other work but stands completely on its own. The main character of David Holm (played by Sjöström) goes on a journey to examine his very soul. We delve into the depths of his psychology in an attempt to understand how he has turned into such a brute, and see if there is any way he can climb out of the abyss. It’s a story of good versus evil, generosity versus selfishness, and guilt versus atonement.
Using death as a way to examine one’s life calls to mind similar classic work. Lagerlöf’s novel may have been influenced by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The way David sees those around him affected by his absence calls to mind what George Bailey (James Stewart) magically went through in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In all three, the main characters are pulled out of their own existence as a way to see the world from a different pair of eyes. Death is a tool to give meaning and enrich life. David Holm’s journey is much more ragged and turbulent than what Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey goes through. This is a man with weaknesses, who has tried to find the right path but has fallen because of his own poor choices. The interesting thing Sjostrom does is show that while there is light at the end of the tunnel, we aren’t so sure David will make it there at the end.
Sjöström was an accomplished filmmaker in his time. He’s been compared to the likes of D.W. Griffith in terms of skill and influence. The Phantom Carriage is his most well known work. He crafts it as a fable. David Holm was once a happy man with his wife (Hilda Borgstrom), children and brother (Einar Axellson). But his friendship with the drunkard Georges (Tore Svennberg) lead to violent alcoholism; his crude behavior causing his family to abandon him. In later years, he spends most of his time in a local bar or on the street drinking away with his friends.
The structure of the narrative is unconventional, especially for the period. The main plot takes place over the course of New Year’s Eve, but Sjöström takes liberties in jumping around in time to fill the holes of David’s background. Sjöström keeps us steady by using different colored film tints as we move to different areas within the story. Sepia tones are used for indoor scenes, while blue is used for the outdoors. Flashbacks also use color (such as red) to help us understand where we are in the timeline. As David’s character is built, we begin to understand the progression of his arc. David is filled with self-loathing for the choices he’s made. His alcoholism infected his brother, who would eventually be arrested for murder (David runs away from his responsibility to his brother and hides away his guilt). The anger he feels toward his wife and children for abandoning him is misplaced, because he knows the true reason why they left.
David seems compelled to reject happiness. His addiction to the bottle leaves him in rags, and with a mocking attitude to anyone that shows him kindness. But he is not someone we outright despise. Sjöström balances the character by injecting a level of humanity that makes us not sympathize but pity him. David realizes that his life is his own doing, and the more times he feels disappointment the further he descends. This is the element that draws Edit (Astrid Holm) to David. Edit is a sister in the Salvation Army, who first meets David at a previous New Year’s Eve and gives him a place to sleep (even sewing up his torn coat). While David treats Edit harshly, she sees something in him worth fighting for. Even though David infects her with a disease that leaves her bedridden for an entire year, Edit still hopes to see him make something positive of his life.
The acting works in contrast to what we familiarize with in silent film. Missing are the broad gestures and exaggerated expressions, replaced by a natural kind of subtlety. The performances (especially by Sjöström, Holm, and Borgstrom) were ahead of the curve. Because much of the conflict is psychological, the execution is much more finely nuanced and detailed. We tend to focus more on the actor’s faces than their body movements, noticing slight changes within the delivery. One of the best examples of this is when Edit pleads with David and his friends to come to a Salvation Army rally. David initially rejects the idea, but when everyone is gone we get a little hint that Edit’s efforts are making a connection. Just as the scene ends, David lifts a glass of beer to take a drink but hesitates for just a fraction of a second. That slight moment gives so much texture to the character, because he is undoubtedly having an inner battle – a reflection of the battle he’ll have for his very soul.