The Phantom Carriage (1921)


Director Sjöström was also an imposing actor. He plays the role of an utterly detestable character and still turns him into a fascinating figure. We see a mean and cruel man, addicted to alcohol, who flees into aggressive behaviour as a refuge from his demons. He is totally down and out, but refuses self-pity or remorse. He also despises the mercy and promise of redemption offered by a young pious lady of the Salvation Army. This may seem understandable enough, but he also rebuffs many other people, including his poor wife and children. 

Naturally it is dark and shivering cold, the Swedish winter on New Year’s Eve is harsh. There is also a fitting supernatural twist in the events depicted through the superimposition of the legendary ghostly phantom carriage led by a grim reaper of the death.
 
The story of the film is based on a novel of Selma Lagerlöf, which is transformed into hallucinating images. The construction of temporal order is made masterful confusing and also the range of story information is opaque. It is fascinating film, because it is from the beginning unclear what is reality and what is dream vision. I only got this insight after the viewing, but in retrospective every image is subjective.
 
The opening scene is powerful and seems to offer a realistic setup: we see a young woman on her deathbed. She suffers from tuberculosis, a terminal illness at the time. In my view the whole remaining story is seen from her feverish perspective. We see a twisted reality, influenced by a mixture of her religious ecstasy and physical feelings of love. She considers herself as the mistress of the bum and at the same time as his savior. However, interpretations of the film remain open, because there are many layers of reality and point of views to distinguish.
 
The film was screened in the Netherlands with a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack performed by Anat Spiegel (guitar, vocals) and Henry Vega (electronics) at the third edition of the Sounds of Silence Festival in February 2017 at De Nieuwe Regentes (The Hague) and at Kino (Rotterdam) on 17th January 2018. The soundtrack enhanced the dreamlike character of the scenes, among others by mixing fragments of the intertitles in the vocals.
 
Inventory of sound scores
 
The Phantom Carriage has received DVD releases as different versions with scores by Matti Bye or KTL. Live versions have also proliferated, with Jonathan Richman (who topped the charts with the Modern Lovers in the late 1970s) performing music to it at the 2007 San Francisco International Festival and The Horses (aka Acid Pony Club, consisting of DJs Laura Ingalls and Clement Pony) performing live music to the film at the 2014 JUE Music Art Festival in Shanghai (‘Chinamusicradar’ 2014). On the internet, there are also accessible versions by Gustaf Lindström (electronics and voice), Edward Rolf Boensnes (electronic keyboards), Signal to Noise Ratio (rock, 2011), Franz Danksagmüller and Berit Barfred (electronics and voice, Barcelona 2010), Matt Marshall (piano), and the Napa Valley Youth Symphony.
The Phantom Carriage was released on DVD in 2010 with a brand new musical soundtrack provided by experimental group KTL, an ensemble which comprises of drone rock guitarist Stephen O’Malley and electronic musician Peter Rehberg. This non-traditional ‘KTL version’ (as it is known) aims at the inculcation of a primal psychological state in a more insistent way than most film scores. In 2009, KTL made performances of The Phantom Carriage, which was followed by the DVD release (although there was no CD release of the music). As a statement of intent, rather than including ‘film notes’ by a film historian, it has some by avant-garde film makers the Quay brothers.”
 
Review – Criterion essay
 
“The Phantom Carriage (1921), based on Körkarlen, a novel by the 1909 Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, is Sjöström’s most famous film. Körkarlen means “the driver” or “the coachman.” The film was also known as The Stroke of Midnight in the U.S., and Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness in the UK. The different titles reflect the uncertainty of distributors at the time in identifying its genre: ghost story, horror, thriller, religious fable? [-]
 
Sjöström quarreled with Lagerlöf about the style of the adaptation of The Phantom Carriage. She wanted it shot on location in the southern town of Landskrona. He opted for a studio production at Filmstaden in Råsunda, built for the new company Svensk Filmindustri. The film was a bold experiment in controlled conditions, carried out with his cinematographer, Julius Jaenzon, who had already used double exposure in Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919), and the laboratory work of Éugen Hellman. This time, the superimpositions were layered up to four times. The ghosts appeared to move within the sets, disappearing from time to time behind the other characters and the solid foreground objects. A hand-moved camera followed each of them. And they were lit differently, using filters, to give them a special reality. The final effect was to create a seemingly three-dimensional image. Sjöström’s studio work did not undermine his realism but enhanced it. The sets, interior and exterior, were shot in exceptionally deep focus for the time. Busy background action was as clear as the foreground, impossible without artificial studio lighting. [-]
 
Sjöström explored what Bergman called the ultimate truth of cinema, the human face, to which Sjöström constantly guides us even without close-ups. Coming from the theater, Sjöström nonetheless rejected traditional stage acting as detrimental to films. He wanted another style of performance since the dialogue could not be heard, concentrating on face, movements, and gestures. His own performance in The Phantom Carriage avoids melodrama by admitting David’s inner confusion, which simultaneously erupts into violence. His outward realism explores inner states. Some of the intertitles are actually voice-over, as he talks to himself.”
 
See also:
 
 
Detailed analysis
 
Other silent films of Victor Sjöström:
Sweden
USA
 
Books about Victor Sjöström: