He is found, but refuses to see her. His last minutes of the year will be spent drunkenly sharing a ghost story with his pals in a cemetery: One year ago, his old friend Georges was the last to die before the clock struck midnight. Because of this horrible timing, he was forced to take the reins of Death’s carriage, wandering the earth and picking up new souls until next year, when another victim will take the role.
This year’s victim is David (Victor Sjöström, who’d later star in Ingmar Bergman’s The Wild Strawberries, perhaps as a thank-you for inspiring the director), who gets into a drunken brawl shortly after his story and ends up dead. Along comes the carriage, led by Georges (Tore Svennberg). Georges, something of an angelic figure despite the cloak and scythe, shows David his errors and how he came to be who he is. (This isn’t really in the job description.)
Flashbacks show him drenched in alcohol and off to prison for it. He was abusive and cruel to his wife and children, who leave him while he’s away. Then there is Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) of the Salvation Army. Born so kind, Edit takes David in. She offers food and stays up all night mending his raggedy jacket, which David responds to the only way he can: by ripping it back into shreds.
The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen), directed by its star, is a visually impressive feat, noted for its double exposure effects, which create ghostly images of the dead walking through walls and rising from their corpses. In one particularly surreal scene (accomplished in part by cinematographer Julius Jaenzon’s vision), the carriage rides into a river, where Georges gets out and dips below the surface to claim a drowned man.
The film is based on Selma Lagerlöf’s novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, which hints at the religious tone the film carries. It is more Dickensian in its approach to the ideas of redemption and remorse. The problem there is that, like most anything (at least partly) inspired by A Christmas Carol, it hosts a world of hokiness where people change suddenly and are excused for their sins.
This was true even in 1921, as shown in the film’s terrible ending, inevitable because of Edit’s misguided motives yet lopped on as if Sjöström knew Hollywood was watching and waiting to invite him to come play. (Which they were--he went on to work for MGM and direct icons such as Lon Chaney, Jr. and Greta Garbo.) And that is the grand fault of The Phantom Carriage: what could have been one of the most atmospheric showcases of creeps and chills winds up a melodramatic piece of Capra-corn.
Ingmar Bergman (15:19): In this excerpt from Gösta Werner’s 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman discusses the influence Sjöström had on him and his work, collaborating with him on Wild Strawberries and more. Also included are clips from The Phantom Carriage.
The Bergman Connection (18:12): In this piece, Bergman biographer Peter Cowie (Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography) discusses various themes (death in particular) that ran through the director’s work and how they relate to The Phantom Carriage.
Construction of Råsunda Studios (4:43): This wonderful piece of archival footage from 1919 shows Sjöström, director Mauritz Stiller and head of production Charles Magnusson at the site of Svensk Filmindustri’s latest studio grounds.
Also included with this Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray is a 16-page booklet featuring an essay titled “Phantom Forms” by screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Mayersberg.