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Despicable him

Director Sjöström was also an imposing actor. This is clearly supported by his appearance in Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället , Ingmar Bergman, 1957), but also in many films he directed himself, such as The Phantom Carriage (1921).

In this film, 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 saviour. 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 English translations of the intertitles in the vocals.

I saw the film also during the Summer Film College 2015 in Antwerp, with live accompaniment by pianist Hilde Nash (and happily enough also a live-translation of the intertitles).


Detailed analysis
Silent films of Victor Sjöström:
Books about Victor Sjöström:
  • Florin, Bo (2013) Transition and Transformation: Victor Sjöström in Hollywood 1923-1930. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP.
  • Forslund, Bengt (1988) Victor Sjöström: His Life and his Work. New York: New York Zoetrope.