Victor Sjöström | The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Ingmar Bergman was a huge fan of this film—and do you really think you know better than him?


Categorizing films as “silent” is useful in terms of distinguishing them from films with synchronized sound (once called “talkies,” now just called “films”). However, this label both misrepresents the contemporary audience experience (which was not silent at all, but included music and sometimes live narration and commentary, as well) and suggests that silent films are lacking in something they should have. In other words, the label “silent” establishes talkies as the norm, and then classifies silent films as “other” because they don’t have synchronized sound.

Everyone knows Norma Desmond’s opinion about the switch from silent to talking films. Right after her famous “I am big. It’s the picture that got small” comment in Sunset Boulevard, she says: “There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough. Oh, no. They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk…”

Of course, Norma is an embittered ex-star and a bit of a nutcase, but she does have a point: Before talkies, film directors worked in a universally understood language and could devote their full efforts toward creating visual impact. The absence of recorded dialogue also encouraged exploration of aesthetics other than verisimilitude, producing films that departed from the world of the everyday and explored the realm of imagination.

Swedish director Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921) is a case in point. Based on the novel Körkarlen by Selma Lagerlöf, it’s a fantastic horror film whose visuals perfectly complement its spooky tale of “Death’s carriage,” which travels night and day to collect the souls of people who have died (the concept is based on a British folk legend). Sjöström’s mastery of visual storytelling is on full display throughout the film (almost two hours long, it uses only 132 title cards, of which all but nine convey dialogue rather than exposition) And you don’t have to take my word for it: Ingmar Bergman was a huge fan of this film—and do you really think you know better than him?

The story of the phantom carriage takes place within a melodramatic plot that presents the downfall, despair, and (SPOILER ALERT!) redemption of the drunkard David Holm (Sjöström). David ruins the life of several good people in the process, including his wife (Hilda Borgström), his brother (Einar Axelsson), and the religious worker Edit (Astrid Holm), and seems fated to succeed his former drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg) as the driver of the phantom carriage. Sjöström draws on the conventions of contemporary stage melodramas, creating a film engineered to make you hiss at villainy and weep over innocence betrayed, while leading up to a big finish of pure emotional uplift that takes place not in the known universe but in the world of faith and miracles. Were this all there is to The Phantom Carriage, it would be considered a worthy film of its time, but one which is primarily of historical interest today.

Ah, but then you have the phantom carriage sequences, which are as chillingly effective as anything a modern studio has ever turned out. The phantom carriage is a rickety old coach, drawn by a gaunt horse and driven by a hooded coachman bearing a scythe. The driver, who serves Death for a year (each day of which seems like 100 years), is the last person to die in the previous year.

The carriage scenes make great use of double exposure (actually multiple exposure, since the film was passed through the camera as many as four times) to make the carriage partially transparent. The multiple exposures were created in-camera—no mean feat in the days of hand-cranked cameras—but the resulting images are effectively otherworldly and align with the common belief that ghostly things are both perceptible and immaterial. The scenes showing the separation of soul from body is also achieved through multiple exposure, and this effect remains reliably creepy, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.

Sjöström’s strong understanding of light and composition is also on display in the indoor scenes. He uses strong lighting near practical fixtures but allows the more distant parts of the room to recede into darkness, as would be the case for a room lit by lamplight; this choice also helps direct your focus within the scene. His directorial style mixes lengthy wide shot scenes (“tableau style”) with the more rapid cuts of continuity style, and he seldom moves the camera within a scene. Instead, he relies on careful blocking plus the use of close-ups, irising, and matte shots when he wants to draw your attention to one character within a group. The acting is melodramatic, as was customary at the time, so clearly the point was not to produce a naturalistic view of daily life, but to create a heightened reality that brings the great issues of life into sharper focus. | Sarah Boslaugh

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