Criterion // 1921 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // October 3rd, 2011
Wherever he goes, he's greeted with sorrow and despair.
Victor Sjöström (He Who Gets Slapped) was Sweden's master filmmaker in the early years of cinema. His focus on storytelling without words, using his actors' faces and positioning over expository intertitles, was different that almost any of his contemporaries and, unlike many of those other films, his work still has a somewhat modern feel all these decades later. The Phantom Carriage was his masterwork. Using an old Swedish folk tale, he tells a phenomenal story through expert performances and groundbreaking special effects in ways that had a profound influence on the country's next master director, Ingmar Bergman. Now, after years of floating around on subpar releases, this film has arrived on Blu-ray from Criterion, and is a lovely edition worthy of a film with this kind of power.
As she lays dying, Salvation Army nurse Edit (Astrid Holm, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages) calls out the name David Holm, demanding to see him before she passes. When her friends find David (Sjöström), he is drunk, telling stories to his buddies in a graveyard. When he angrily refuses to see her, a fight breaks out and he winds up dead in the grass. Suddenly, a ghostly carriage rides in to collect his spirit, but before he goes, he is forced to look back through his history, witnessing all the people he hurt so he can discover what made his life go so disastrously wrong.
The Swedish legend on which The Phantom Carriage is based tells that the on New Years Eve, the last person to die before the clock strikes twelve will be forced to drive death's chariot, collecting the souls of the dead all over the world for an entire year until the stroke of midnight the following New Years, when the next unlucky soul takes over the reins. Using this fable, as distilled through Nobel Prize winning author Selma Lagerlöf and her book Körkarlen, Sjöström weaves a tale that at once owes a great debt to Charles Dickens and is a piece all its own. It has a framework obviously reminiscent of A Christmas Carol as ghosts wander through time and place, unable to affect the proceedings and horrified at what they see, in order to illuminate a mean, selfish, and ruthless life. Holm is not quite the villain that Ebenezer Scrooge was, though. His menace comes from drink and self-loathing, which he only realizes when it's thrown back in his face.
This is an angst-filled story, gloomy to its core and dripping with regret. Sjöström makes it clear how alcoholism can damage a life and destroy a family, but it isn't directly in support of the growing temperance movement (though, interestingly, at its US premiere, it was slightly recut to focus on the hooch and was applauded for its anti-alcohol stance during the first months of prohibition). Alcohol is the catalyst, but the film is more concerned with David's guilt at watching his self-destructive behavior break down everybody who loved him and his rejection of all the people who tried to help him redeem himself. It's a sad, too-familiar tale that is both deeply moving and terribly morbid.
These attributes are underscored by the look of the film and the performances. Sjöström makes superior use of double exposure techniques, a marvel of special effects for the time, which highlight the ghostly nature of the story. While not exactly the level we see now, they are perfectly executed and do as good a job at bringing the apparitions to life as effects today. For all the technology we now have access to, a scene in which the carriage glides into the waves of the raging ocean to collect a drowned woman is expertly realized and, if not realistic, completely appropriate for the mood of the picture. The performances, too, are brilliant, with Sjöström absolutely phenomenal in the lead. As a specter, while he watches himself do absolutely terrible things, from drunken fighting to breathing into the faces of his own young children with the intent of infecting him with his tuberculosis, he makes it extremely easy to both hate the figure of the past and feel sympathy for the ghost of the present. It's an incredible performance that does not suffer anything with time. The director focuses on the emotions expressed in the actors' faces without resorting to extreme closeups and without the need for huge gesticulations. Every role is performed economically and appropriately. In every way, The Phantom Carriage resonates, the story works alongside the performances and the effects to make an exceptionally cohesive whole, one that I'm very happy to have watched.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Phantom Carriage might suffer from some of the inevitable troubles of being a 90-year-old film, but I am duly impressed with what they have produced for their release. Honestly, I have always been a little bit wary of hi-def releases of silent films because of the potential of accentuating the roughness of the print and the damage that occurs with old nitrate originals, but Criterion has consistently proven me wrong. The Phantom Carriage does not feature a perfect transfer, there is damage and dirt in many places, but the clarity you want in a Blu-ray is most certainly there. Built out of two separate incomplete nitrates, one black-and-white and one tinted, they have constructed the complete film to excellent results. For the time, the film features some intense deep focus cinematography and the detail into the background is as strong as I could possibly hope for. This may not be the very best silent transfer I've seen, as some have been much more meticulously preserved over the years, but I have a hard time imagining The Phantom Carriage ever looking better than it does here. For sound, we have two scores that are equally strong in their stereo mixes. The first, composed by Matti Bye, is a very typical chamber orchestra silent score that I didn't care for, as tends to be the case with me. It's not bad music, but its reflection of the onscreen action is not really my thing. The second, though, by the Swedish experimental electronic act KTL is much more my speed, with weird sounds and an overall foreboding tone that strongly appeals to me and is, by far, the one I prefer. For sound quality, however, the two are basically equal, so whichever suits your fancy.
The extra features on the disc are also excellent, beginning with an expert audio commentary from film historian Casper Tybjerg. In it, he goes over every tiny aspect of the film, from the production to the background of the story to the intricacies of the story. It's not the most entertaining commentary ever recorded, but it's worth every second for the historical relevance and insight into the story. A fifteen minute interview with Ingmar Bergman, excerpted from Gösta Werner's 1981 documentary, Victor Sjöström: A Portrait, which details the influence that Sjöström had on him, from his first time seeing The Phantom Carriage and its inspiration for him to make films himself to his casting of the director in his own great Wild Strawberries and the bravura performances he was able to muster, even as an old man. Along with the excellent customary essay in the booklet, the disc finishes out with a pair of featurettes, one a visual essay on the connection between Sjöström and Bergman, and the other a bit of footage of the construction of Råsunda Studio, in which The Phantom Carriage was the inaugural production.
The Phantom Carriage is one of the finest silent films ever made and an incredible piece of work regardless of when it was made. Incredibly atmospheric and brilliantly acted, it is very nearly a perfect film that all film fans owe themselves to watch. Criterion's Blu-ray is uniformly excellent with great features and a transfer that's better than I could have hoped. Absolutely recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Silent)
* English (Subtitles)
* Swedish (Intertitles)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1921
MPAA Rating: Not Rated