The Phantom Carriage aka Körkarlen (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
This article is part of a series of self- imposed movie reviews set in the participation of this film critic to the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Club. It is an attempt at catching up the reviews that I’ve missed in my recent period of inactivity in the blogosphere.
This landmark in Swedish Cinema, recently released in Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection, is one of the primary works of Horror films, Fantasy, and psychological studies. The whole ghost story and Death taking the souls of the deceased is a theme that is directly linked to Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal. Also, the director of The Phantom Carriage starred in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, has been revealed has been a great influence on Bergman and many others that followed. It is also a very Swedish theme of the visiting ghost that can be easily connected with August Strindberg’s writings that often involved ghosts.
Back to our main program, The Phantom Carriage is the story of David Holm (Victor Sjöström), a drunk that tells the story of the Death that takes the last soul to die before midnight on new year’s eve to help him for the year. Obviously, he tells this story at five to midnight on December 31st, 1921 and he dies just before midnight. Told in flashbacks and handled with interesting special effects of film on film, we are in the presence of a very intelligent story that frights in a very cerebral way. It shows how a man who has everything can lost it all. The similarities with the story of The Shinning are surprising and the father figure of David Holm acts similarly to Jack Torrance. However, David is just a man who got intoxicated by alcohol and becomes a menace for his family and himself. Well, it is more than just similarities if you think about it. It also recalls Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Tale when the ghosts show Scrooge how could have been his different lives. The flashbacks and David’s travels with Death are reminding of these different stories. We follow the life of a man who alcohol problem caused a wave of tragic events in his life and the lives surrounding him. Sjöström has a way of telling a story that involves intense feelings and like a recent scar, he is not afraid to scratch it until it bleeds again. Viewing The Phantom Carriage a Bergman enthusiast can’t deny the important influence from the eldest master to the younger master.
When I started digging in Silent films, the most popular Horror films consisted of the classics like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari, Vampyr (not totally silent but almost), Faust, The Man Who Laughs, and The Unknown. The mention of The Phantom Carriage was almost absent and it was difficult to get a copy. With the release by the company with the C on the upper left of the box, the movie gained in popularity and it was more widespread that it is a recognized masterpiece. As for what it is, my second experience of a Sjöström film I would rank the simple but intense story of the Western The Wind first. Really close in second place, stands the remarkable Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage).