Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)

The Phantom Carriage is such a spellbinding technical achievement it's easy to overlook just how gentle and suggestive it is. Its ghostly apparitions float through a world of beautifully composed frames, striking even without the layered imagery. Victor Sjöström's 1921 opus captures the icy chill of its winter setting, a sense of static, cold air, of frozen death hanging over a village that already feels necrotic and wasting.

Death is, after all, the whole point of The Phantom Carriage. The title refers to the vessel that transports departed souls to the other plain, and the driver is bound to do Death's bidding for a year. As the legend goes, the last person to die before the midnight toll of the new year replaces the old driver. David Holm (Sjöström) heard that story from his friend Georges before the man died, but it's only when he finds himself on the wrong end of a drunken fight on New Year's Eve that he learns just how accurate this tale tale is.

As an actor, Sjöström is naturalistic, his big, silent cinema emotions not exaggerated into expressionistic or melodramatic flourishes. Holm's story is a tragic one, a tale of self-inflicted misery that can only be alleviated by increasingly strong amounts of alcohol. Sjöström wears a look of woe and wrath, a man so broken by his actions that he now hates everything. Forty-two years old at the time, Sjöström's consumptive hacking and grimy countenance give him the look of an even older, more withered man. His relative youth only makes him scarier when it pokes through the tubercular muck, a reminder of the soul buried under all that baggage.

It's easy to see how the film influenced Ingmar Bergman years later. Sjöström's shots are static and theatrically composed, placing emphasis on the actors' faces and the psychological and spiritual despair playing out over them. Holm's booze-soaked fury is contrasted with the fear of his wife Anna, who leaves her husband when his and Georges' drinking gets out of hand, and the piety of the dying Salvation Army member Edit (Astrid Holm), who wishes to help Holm by reuniting him and Anna. Holm's resolute cynicism battles with that show of faith, and for a time it looks as if his spiritual void will win out over her belief in God.

Much as Sjöström entrusts his actors with communicating the film's atmosphere, he also uses action and visual technique to deepen the film. He inserts the carriage and its driver into the frame by way of innovative and intricate double-exposure that predated the easier process of optical printing by a decade. This was back when hand-cranked cameras were still used, necessitating a precise matching of speed to get the second image over the first. But the results are spectacular, the spirits translucent behind and in front of objects. Sjöström also knows how to frame drama, such as the climactic flashback of Anna locks a cruel, tuberculosis-ridden Holm in the kitchen and he viciously breaks down the door with an axe (something Kubrick would take for the hair-raising climax of his own horror film, The Shining). Sjöström's acting and directing brilliantly builds a mood of terror, mounting from mean-spirited petulance to full-on psychotic terror in minutes.

Unlike the bleak, godless psychosexual dramas Bergman drew from Sjöström's work, The Phantom Carriage ends along more conventional, faith-affirming lines. Nevertheless, if this vision of Death ultimately resembles more the joyous finale of A Christmas Carol than the grim hope of The Seventh Seal, Sjöström's film still connotes a haunting sense of doom throughout. You can feel the cold Nordic wind blowing through the frame, and it's tempting to huddle around every candle shown on the screen, regardless of how little warmth it might offer. It's a wonder Sjöström ever got an offer to work in Hollywood with work like this, but it's not hard to see why someone scouting for talent would be drawn to this technically and emotionally complex art.

1 comment:

  1. Nice write-up! I watched this on Hulu Plus awhile back, before the disc was released. Now I own the blu-ray but I'm saving it to watch sometime toward the end of the year, as a howling snowstorm swoops down upon us from the frozen North country...