Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.
In 1921, Victor Sjöstöm released The Phantom Carriage, based on the 1912 novel, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Nobel prize-winner Selma Lagerlöf. Starring Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander, Lisa Lundholm, Einar Axelsson, Nils Aréhn, Olof Âs, Tor Weijden, Simon Lindstrand, Nils Elffors, and John Ekman, the film had an unknown gross. The film was an influence on such filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick.
On New Year’s Eve, the dying Sister Edit wishes to speak with David Holm before she dies. A drunk in the cemetery, David tells his friends about his old friend, Georges, who once told him about the legend that the final person to die on New Year’s Eve had to drive Death’s carriage collecting the souls of everyone who dies during the year. When Edit’s colleague find’s David, he’s unable to convince him to see her and his friends try to get him to do so when a fight breaks out and David is struck on the head by a bottle. He dies just before the clock strikes twelve and his soul emerges from his body just as Death’s carriage approaches.
While not perfect, The Phantom Carriage is a great and well-made film, especially for the time it was produced in. The story is pretty interesting, involving David being reunited with Georges in death as the latter was the last person to die during the previous year and wound up driving Death’s carriage. Interestingly, the film isn’t about David having to take over for Georges, but is about him and Georges looking over the former’s life and seeing where he went wrong in his life with his family and friends. What’s more is that Georges notably sees him getting involved in David’s life as the catalyst for David’s life going downhill. In those flashbacks, David sees a promise he made to Edit to see her within a year of making a promise and it’s being brought to her against his will that brings David to realize his wrongdoings with his family. At the same time, David’s wife, Anna, has caught tuberculosis from David and wants to kill herself and the children so they won’t be left alone, which makes David want a second chance so he can save them.
Now, that’s where the film goes wrong as a man looking through his life before he ultimately dies and has to drive Death’s carriage for a year is a great concept. It’s established that one day on earth feels like 100 years to the person driving the carriage and it seems like a great idea for the person driving the carriage to think for that year about all that he did in life. However, at the end David repents of his wrongdoings and winds up coming back to life so he can save Anna and his children. This is the last few minutes of the film and seems like the writer totally backpedaled as when David first met Georges when he died, Georges told him that by meeting him, it was too late for David to see a doctor. The film had plainly stated that David was dead and beyond being able to come back to life and then all of a sudden, because David is repentant, he’s able to do so and save his wife and children.
Even with that problem, though, the film is very good and has some great effects for its time. Death’s carriage and the spirits of the dead are double exposed on the film to give them a ghostly look and while this would be very easy to do in modern times, it’s an effect that was very difficult to do in the 1920s. That being said, the film pulled it off perfectly and it kept the same consistency throughout the film.
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The film has some interesting storytelling conventions as well. Most of it is told in flashbacks and while those weren’t exactly new in the 1920s, it went even further and had the characters flash back to earlier times within those flashbacks. It’s an interesting way to tell the story and give it some layered depth. There are times when it does get a little confusing, but it’s a great way to keep the story going without having to break the flow and constantly turn back to the dead David and Georges.
It’s not a perfect film, with the inconsistency at the end of the story, but it’s still great and easy to see the influences it had on later directors.