Criterion film a day, day 12: 1921’s The Phantom Carriage

Like many of the other silent films I’ve watched, this film takes a long and somewhat struggling time to reach its slut, but when it does, the slut is very, very satisfying. Of course, this being a swedish film, “slut” means “the end”.

The film takes the course of a very dark, very Lutheran sort of It’s a Wonderful Life. An unrepentant drunk dies on New Year’s Eve, and as legend has it, because he died at the stroke of midnight, he will be doomed to drive death’s carriage for the following year. The previous driver (an old friend of our protagonist, David Holm) appears, and takes him first on a review of his previous year and all the evil he committed.

Departing greatly from It’s a Wonderful Life David Holm is a monumental asshole–a consumptive drunk who deliberately coughs in other people’s faces, gleefully rips off the repairs the loving Sister Edit put in his coat and chases his fleeing wife and daughters around Sweden seemingly only to emotionally abuse them, too.

What I don’t get about this film is the character’s transformation: If you’re that far gone down the road of dickishness (on the way, presumably, to dickeyville) I’m not entirely convinced that seeing a highlight reel of your nastiest moments is going to make you transform.

David does have a transformation, finally resorting to prayer after Death takes him to witness his wife, distraught over her consumption and the possibility of leaving her daughters orphans, attempt to poison all three of them.

The film is enjoyable, and certainly influential–having a huge impact on everyone from Ingmar Bergman (think, Seventh Seal) to Stanley Kubrick (think the Axe scene in The Shining). This is also the first silent film I’ve seen that made focused use of filters: night was often represented by a blue filter, gaslighting by sepia, and so forth. In terms of special effects, the film makes incredible use of double exposure to show the ghostly horse and driver. Double exposure within the camera wasn’t available until the 30s, so this all had to be painstakingly done by hand.

Speaking of hands, the film’s message is rather heavy. The violent and destructive reaction all men in this film have to alcohol brings to mind the histrionics of Reefer Madness. The god message is also pretty clear: Sister Edit, who first mends David’s coat and then devotes herself to putting him back together with his wife despite his cruelty towards her, is a saintly figure. She is dying of consumption and still wants to see him, still loves him in the most Christian of ways.

The film doesn’t go full-bore saint, and when she professes feeling guilty for attempting to bring David Holm back together with his wife (a reunion, given the consumption and the poisoning that didn’t go well), it briefly toes the line between being further proof of her saintliness and a criticism of pandering good intentions. How much of this is about her and her own desire to be good?

This question is quickly stifled though and the film returns to its regularly scheduled messaging on alcohol and saintliness.

Overall, its a film worth seeing if you watch film for the sake of understanding how the genre developed–this is one of the central films of Swedish cinema and you can see pretty clearly the influence that it has had.

If you’re looking for a rocking good time to enjoy your satanism and a beer, probably not for you.


About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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