The Phantom Carriage (1921) Director: Victor Sjöström
The Phantom Carriage is a phenomenally haunting Swedish silent film –one of the seminal works of Swedish cinema. It was directed by Victor Sjöström who also starred in the film. He later directed another notable silent film, The Wind (1928), though I first saw him when he starred as an elderly man in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). Bergman would later praise The Phantom Carriage as one of the greatest films ever made. It left a powerful influence over his own works, and Bergman claimed to have watched it at least once every summer. The Swedish title, Körkarlen, can be translated to mean “Wagoner.” The film is based on an award-winning 1912 novel entitled “Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!” by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf and it unfolds almost like a folktale, per Criterion: “The last person to die on New Year’s Eve before the clock strikes twelve is doomed to take the reins of Death’s chariot and work tirelessly collecting fresh souls for the next year.”
The Phantom Carriage tells the story of Edit, a dying sister of the salvation army, who cries out for David Holm, played by Sjöström himself. At that moment he is in a graveyard describing an old Swedish legend: the last person to sin and die on New Year’s Eve must drive Death’s ghostly carriage and pick up the souls of the dead for the following year (interestingly enough the film was released in Scandinavia on New Year’s Day). This old legend reminds Holm of his friend Georges who died on New Year’s Eve the previous year. Then a fight breaks out and Holm is smashed over the head with a bottle by one of his drinking buddies, apparently killing him. Suddenly Georges appears driving the phantom carriage and David is filled with remorse. Georges takes David on a series of dreams, or flashbacks, in homage to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as Georges shows David how much better his life was before the influence of Georges and his drinking. The two of them appear before Edit who begs them not to take her on the haunted carriage ride of the dead, and just before they do, David awakens in the graveyard and rushes home to his family.