Thursday 4 November 2021

A Centenary of Fantastic Films - 1921 #1 The Phantom Carriage aka Körkarlen (Sweden 1921: Dir Victor Sjöström)

Swedish director Victor Sjöström is possibly best known as stubborn old physician Professor Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman's insightful and insular 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries aka Smultronstället. One of Sjöström's 44 acting credits, he also has a role in 1921's The Phantom Carriage. This was his 24th feature, made three years before he made the movie from his homeland to Hollywood at the request of Louis B. Mayer; he'd lived in the USA for six of the first seven years of his life, after his father relocated there.

Many of the director's early works before The Phantom Carriage are now lost. This film, like two of his earlier movies prior to this one, was based on 'Körkarlen' aka 'Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!', a 1912 novel by Selma Lagerlöf. Lagerlöf was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature: she had sold the movie rights to her unpublished works to Swedish Cinema Theatre, a company who in 1919 merged with Filmindustri AB Skandia and continued operations as Svensk Filmindustri AB. This period of Swedish cinematic history produced a wealth of output which found international popularity (The Phantom Carriage was a huge success both in and outside of Sweden) and was a cited influence on the work of Ingmar Bergman, born three years before this movie was released.

The film is set on New Year's Eve: Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), a member of the Salvation Army (the movement had been present in Sweden since the close of the 19th Century), is dying of consumption. She makes a last request to summon a man called David Holm (Sjöström) to her bedside. 

Holm is a drunk who has abandoned his wife Anna (Hilda Borgström) and their two children. When we meet him he's in a graveyard with two other drunks; he regales them with a story, told to him by his friend Georges (Tore Svennberg), that the last man to die on New Year's Eve is cursed to drive the carriage of death for the next year, collecting the souls of the newly deceased in the service of The Grim Reaper. Georges was the last person to die before the previous New Year was ushered in.

Edit's friend Gustavson (Tor Weijden) finds David and asks him to return to Edit's house; he refuses and, in a disagreement with the other drunks, David is slain just before the bells of midnight. The cart of death arrives for him and David takes over the reins from the previous driver, who is of course Georges.

The cart of death in The Phantom Carriage 

Before David takes up the job for the next year, in a series of flashbacks Georges reminds him of the consequences of his dissolution (ironic in that it was Georges who introduced the formerly upstanding David to the demon drink): how David mistreated his wife and children, leading them to walk out on him; the spells in prison; how he similarly led his brother astray, his sibling killing a man in a moment of drunkenness.

The previous New Year's Eve, riddled with consumption himself, David had drunkenly attended a Salvation Army 'pop up' mission at which he had met Edit, who looks after him, "never giving a thought to the germs she had inhaled". Edit sees David as someone worth saving, but he seems beyond hope, exclaiming: "I'm a consumptive, but I cough into people's faces, in the hope of finishing them off. Why should they be better than us?" Even her attempt to reunite David and his wife ends in disaster.

George takes David by force to meet Edit. Initially she is unable to make him repent, but David, increasingly wracked with guilt, eventually prostrates himself at her bedside, and Edit dies. Finally George takes David back to the house where Anna, living with her kids, has decided to end all their lives. This provokes a sincere outpouring of grief from the wayward husband. Georges, satisfied of this repentance, releases David's soul back into his body; alive again, he is just in time to race home and stop his wife from her actions, and they reconcile.

While The Phantom Carriage is at its heart an old fashioned morality tale - man descends to drunkenness, refuses help and finds last minute salvation - and is clearly in debt to Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' in both time of the year and moral message, it remains a refreshingly modern looking film. The story within story flashbacks effectively break up the narrative, and while the superimposition effects may not be as impressive today, at the time they were extraordinary, particularly in that they were incorporated into the action rather than seen as stand alone gimmicks. Some still have the power to move: a scene where death picks up a body from the bottom of the sea, or walks into a house to claim the soul of a man who has just shot himself, remain powerful.

The themes of the film were remarkably topical. In Sweden at the time of filming alcohol misuse had accelerated to such a rate that, from 1919 onwards, every Swedish citizen was given an alcohol ration book which controlled how much booze they could buy each month. And following the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 - 1920 Tuberculosis (or consumption) remained a big killer in the country, particularly of younger men.

The novel would be filmed twice more. In 1939 French director Julien Duvivier made The Phantom Wagon (original title La charrette fantôme) and then nearly twenty years later in 1958 Arne Mattsson adapted the novel again in Sweden under its original title Körkarlen.

You can watch The Phantom Carriage here

1 comment:

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