When bringing up early silent cinema most discussion either lead to acknowledging the technical revolutions of Georges Melies, or the innovative narrative abilities of D.W. Griffith, and in most instances to the oneiric qualities of German Expressionist filmmaking. Few, however, bring up Sweden's involvement in the movement, particularly Victor Sjöström and his horror drama The Phantom Carriage. As technically unique as Melies and as narratively grandiose as Griffith, The Phantom Carriage is a thing of exceptional beauty and grace that manages to both astound general audiences and art house fanatics alike. Not only is the film composed brilliantly and written with a astute understanding of human nature, but it has proved to be one of the most influential films to emerge from the silent era, something that has directly and indirectly influenced Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick amongst others. The Phantom Carriage in a mere hour and forty minutes manages to take a deep look into human sacrifice and the nature of forgiveness with such meticulous care that it makes you wonder why this film is only beginning to reemerge as a silent classic, because it is equal to its contemporaries, if not a notch better.
The Phantom Carriage takes place on New Year's Eve in a small Swedish town. Tragic news has emerged that a Salvation Army nurse named Edit (Astrid Holm) is in the through of death. Meanwhile, at the local graveyard a drunkard named David, played by the director, spews out a story to his fellow drunks about the curse of the first person to die in the New Year taking over the job of the grim reaper's chauffeur. After telling this tale, David is approached by an old friend named Gustafson (Tor Weijdan) who informs him of Edit's sickness and attempts to convince the inebriated David to return to her before she dies. Confused and enraged a fight breaks out between David and the other drunks, which leads to David accidentally being killed right before the clock strikes midnight. As a result, David's eerie tale becomes a reality as he is visited by death and is informed of his new duty for the coming year. Death, however, turns out to be David's former friend from the story he told named Georges (Tore Svennberg) who realizes that he is in an unusual circumstance and takes David on a journey through his past before taking him to reap the soul of Edit. In a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that David led a considerably bitter life, particularly following his bout with tuberculosis, which he spreads cynically to those around him. He, in fact, is responsible for giving tuberculosis to Edit and desires greatly to receive her forgiveness before she dies. In a bit of magnificently composed paranormal communication David is finally able to mend things with Edit and display his regret. As such, Edit dies in peace and David is spared the job as the driver of the phantom carriage. He is also allowed another shot at life, which he takes to the fullest, making sure to save his wife who was on the cusp of suicide. The film closes with David and his wife embracing, as the previously cynical man now celebrates the fleeting moments that represent his life.
The Phantom Carriage is incredibly fixated on notions of sacrifice and forgiveness and the film focuses on these themes with a method that is both subtle and direct. In the tradition of silent film styling, many of the title cards are composed with words like "forgiveness," "sorry" and "my fault," and are often followed by gestures of grand acting in which each performer depicts a hyper-sorrow, which ensures that viewers understand the characters guilt. More subtly, the narrative approaches how one comes to deal with guilt and earn forgiveness. In Sjöström's film one is not granted the comfort of forgiveness until they have gone through a Buddhistesque trial of loss, in which they learn the value of gaining. It is not until David has assumed that he has lost everything, including his life, Edit's and that of his family that he realizes the true meaning of nothingness. Prior to this he assumed that simply being sick was the worst thing God could do to him and that in rebellion against such an unfair treatment that spreading his disease was justifiable. At this point his soul was not able to sacrifice for others and, thus, not able to receive forgiveness. It is not until he can see the sacrificial actions of Georges, or the saintly patience of Edit that he comes to understand the nature of a truly loving soul. Ultimately, the film reminds viewers that to sacrifice, means to accept ones own fortunes as well as ones own faults and that, in order to be forgiven, one must truly accept responsibility for their wrongdoings. It is at this point that a soul can then be reaped.
The Phantom Carriage is yet another masterful release by Criterion. The bluray is most excellent and comes with multiple scores to listen to while viewing the film, which is extraordinary and wholly captivating.