Monday, September 26, 2011

Blu-ray Review | "The Phantom Carriage"

Ingmar Bergman was barely three years old when Victor Sjöström made The Phantom Carriage in 1921, but the influence Sjöström had on Bergman cannot be overstated. Bergman claimed to have seen The Phantom Carriage at least once a year, and the film had a profound impact on him as a teenager.

Prior to Bergman's arrival on the international scene with the one-two punch of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries in 1957, Sjöström was the greatest of the Swedish directors, and while his output has since been surpassed by Bergman, he remains one of the most accomplished filmmakers of the silent era, and a huge influence on generations who came after him.

While Bergman (would later use Sjöström as the lead in Wild Strawberries) may be the most notable of his successors, his influence can be seen in the work of multiple directors. A scene where an enraged father beats down a door with an axe to get to his wife and children mirrors the famous sequence with Jack Nicholson from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, while the plot itself is a direct precursor to Frank Capra's perennial holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life. Fellow European auteur Carl Dreyer was also clearly influenced by the film's haunting imagery for his own 1932 supernatural thriller, Vampyr.

Hilda Borgström as Mrs. Holm and Olof Ås as the first driver of the chariot in THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. 
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
In the film, Sjöström himself plays David Holm, a drunken lout who has sworn off good behavior, vowing to track down his wife after she leaves him for his drunken behavior after he is sent off to jail. Along the way he meets Sister Edit, a Salvation Army worker who takes him in one cold New Year's Eve and shows him kindness, only to have it thrown back in her face by a cruel and ungrateful Holm. Nonplussed, Sister Edit says a prayer for him, asking God to grant him a good new year, and she asks him to return one year later to let her know if her prayer was answered.

Sister Edit, however, contracts consumption and falls deathly ill, while David Holm sits in a graveyard one year later relating ghost stories to his fellow revelers, remembering a friend who had died one year ago that very night. According to legend, the last person who dies on New Year's Eve is doomed to drive Death's carriage for the next year. But before the night is out, David finds himself in a fight, and he passes away just before the stroke of midnight, and just as the legend says, Death's carriage comes for him, and the driver is none other than his old friend who had died the year before. In a Dickensian twist, before he hands David the reigns, the carriage driver takes him on a tour of his life. Through a series of flashbacks, David's story unfolds, and he sees how his actions have destroyed not only Sister Edit's life, but the lives of his wife and children as well.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
The Phantom Carriage is perhaps one of the most beautiful films of the silent era, and that beauty is reflected in Criterion's gorgeous transfer. The primitive special effects, which were achieved in-camera, are surprisingly impressive, even today. The transparent carriage and driver are convincingly realized using double exposure, a technique pioneered by Sjöström. His layering of flashbacks within flashbacks is also revolutionary for its time, creating a non-linear narrative that was almost unheard of. The film brought Sjöström international notoriety, and he was subsequently invited to Hollywood, where his name was changed to Seastrom to sound more American.

The special features on the blu-ray tend to focus on Sjöström's connection to Bergman, and while I would have liked to have seen more focus on the particular historical importance of the film itself, the Bergman connection will be especially interesting to film fans, and those who are more familiar with Bergman's work than Sjöström's. The disc also includes two musical scores to choose from - a more classical score by Matti Bye, which enhances the film's eerie beauty, and a modern score by experimental group, KTL, which focuses more on the film's supernatural dissonance. While I prefer Bye's more lyrical work, KTL's horror tinged experimentalism provides a completely different viewing experience, and works well depending on what one is in the mood to see. No matter which score one chooses, one thing remains clear - The Phantom Carriage is a masterpiece, and is easily one of the most accessible silent films for modern audiences. Filled with images both chilling and entrancing, Sjöström's masterwork is an unforgettable work of art.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE | Directed by Victor Sjöström | Stars Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander | Not rated | Silent, Swedish intertitles w/English subtitles | Available on blu-ray and DVD Tuesday, September 27, from the Criterion Collection.

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