Körkarlen [The Phantom Carriage] (1921)

I'm worried this is going to get lost in the shuffle because we're looking at so many silent movies this year. This one's a little different, though, both because it's an incredibly influential and important work and because the subject matter is probably going to resonate more with the sort of people I expect (or at least hope) read this blog.

The Phantom Carriage is a silent Swedish horror/drama hybrid built around a New Year's Eve legend in which the last person to die before the stroke of midnight is cursed to drive Death's carriage through the following year, collecting souls. The term "folk horror" isn't generally applied to movies prior to the 1970s, but this certainly feels like a pretty good fit. You could argue it's the first film in that subgenre, and one of the first horror films in general, coming out a year after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and a year before Nosferatu.

Before anyone gets too excited, I should add a great deal of its runtime is spent in flashbacks to the lives of those involved, so don't go in expecting an hour and forty minutes of folklore about undead terror. But what's here is both visually impactful and integral to the story, so it's worth a viewing if you're interested in the history of horror cinema (or really any of the more fantastical genres).

At the time of its release, it was both incredibly popular and well respected - Charlie Chaplin apparently called it the greatest movie ever made - and it left a huge impression on Ingmar Bergman that's evident in his work (though he also says as much himself in a documentary included on Criterion). You can see echoes of the visuals and premise here in everything from The Pirates of the Caribbean movies to Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. In short, this one left a mark.

But let's put in pin on all that and get to the story, which is drawn from a novel of the same name in Swedish (though the book was released in English under the title, "Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!") by Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize in Literature. The main character of the movie is David, a drunken, abusive man suffering from tuberculosis. He's played by Victor Sjöström, who also wrote and directed the film.

Prior to this, however, we're introduced to a dying Salvation Army nurse named Edit, who we'll later learn contracted tuberculosis herself trying to help David. She knows she's dying and tries to send for David, but he refuses her summons, an act that leads to him getting in a fight and dying (or at least seemingly dying) just before midnight on New Year's Eve.

By this point, the movie already established the legend of the carriage driver using a story within a flashback that also introduces Georges, the man who would both cause David's fall into alcoholism and wind up as the carriage driver himself. He comes to collect David and inform him that he's destined to take over the job for the following year, a prospect David naturally struggles against. He also informs him that he'll be forced to reckon with the harm he's caused others, just as Georges needs to face his culpability in corrupting David.

This leads us into a series of flashbacks showing David's fall from grace, imprisonment and separation from his wife and kids, his vow to take vengeance on his wife (this is apparently fleshed out more in the book, but he blames her for contracting tuberculosis), and his encounter with Edit a year earlier. Edit becomes somewhat obsessed with David (in the book, she explicitly falls in love with him, but this is toned back for the movie), who mocks her. Edit also facilitates David's return to his wife and kids, mistaking his willingness to return home as repentance, rather than bitter revenge. David actually wants his family to contract his disease - he wants his wife to suffer as he did.

Eventually, his spirit is bound by Georges and taken to the room where Edit is dying. She's at first able to see Georges but not David and pleads with him to give her enough time to speak to David (who she assumes is still alive) and get him to repent. She realizes now the harm that's come of bringing him and his wife back together and blames herself - she wants only a chance to correct this mistake. 

David breaks free of his binds and comforts Edit, who's able to see him as if he were alive. She dies, and Georges tells her spirit others will come to collect her (this differs from other sequences of his work we've been shown, as Edit's nature entitles her to some grander reward).

Georges then takes David to his own house, where he watches as his wife, not realizing her husband is dead, is preparing to kill herself and her children, as she believes it's the only way they can escape him. David pleads with Georges to intervene and prays for some sort of supernatural help, taking responsibility for his actions and showing no concern for himself. Georges then sends David's soul back to his body, and David rises, alive again. He rushes home in time to stop his wife and show her he's reformed, allowing for a relatively happy ending.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is extremely impressive. The visual effects are mainly accomplished through the same underlying techniques used for decades in various adaptations of A Christmas Carol. The same film was exposed multiple times to create a translucent ghost effect. But of course, A Christmas Carol didn't require the presence of a full horse and carriage, which I imagine complicated things immensely (to create the effect, you need to film the spectral figures on a black set, which must have been massive in this case). On top of that, Sjöström included a handful of scenes involving more elaborate setups to sell the reality of the illusion. To this end, there are scenes where the carriage seemingly passed behind foreground elements which block it out (this requires blocking part of the image when filming ghost elements. Also impressive is an underwater sequence showing the spectral driver behind what appeared to be floating seaweed (I'm assuming this was done using objects on panes of glass in front of the camera, or possibly with a thin tank of water between the camera and scene).

The film also makes heavy use of tinting to distinguish day from night, as well as indoors from out. It's a useful tool both for building tone and for signaling flashbacks and similar cuts. While tinting film wasn't unusual for the time, The Phantom Carriage employs other tools that were, such as filming the night scenes during the night in order to create more striking shadows.

Moving on to theme and message, since this is already turning into one of my longer write-ups... The movie apparently differs slightly from the novel in terms of what it's saying. The novel primarily started as a sort of call to action around preventive measures to reduce the spread of tuberculosis. Elements of this survive into the finished product, though they read more like symbols of a more universal theme (not that public health hasn't proven to be pretty damn relevant a century and change later). Still, the movie's sights feel more focused on alcoholism than tuberculosis, perhaps in part because it's easier to depict in the silent medium (though it should be noted both Sjöström and Lagerlöf had some experience with the trauma of dealing with an alcoholic relative).

Ultimately, though, the movie depicts both excessive drinking and failing to prevent the spread of disease as examples of acts that have cascading effects. That was certainly my initial takeaway from the movie: that the message was centrally to understand our actions have consequences we may not immediately see or intend. Even the benevolent Edit causes a great deal of suffering when she fails to realize David's intentions towards his family are anything but generous. The difference is that she recognizes the harm she's caused and works to make amends.

The movie feels at times as though it's attempting to moralize and preach against drinking and other "sinful" activities, though it turns out this may be less intentional than it appears. Selma Lagerlöf, while spiritual, didn't think much of traditional religion, and it sounds as if her book was less geared towards a Christian theology than the movie defaults to. The relationship between Edit and David, while never physical, had romantic elements that were severely toned down (though not entirely removed) for the movie, likely to streamline the story and avoid asides connected to Lagerlöf's complex spiritual beliefs (she was a theosophist, which is sort of a late 19th/early 20th-century precursor to New Age). Those beliefs are more reflected in a prayer advocated by Georges, who says humanity should hope not to die until their souls have matured (theosophism borrows several ideas from Eastern religion and philosophies, which may be why the message is more centered on having a positive impact and achieving enlightenment than anything relating to faith). 

It's also worth noting that neither the novelist nor director were strictly sober. All of which is to say that while the movie reads like it's trying to moralize Christian values, it appears that's more an unintended side effect (though that doesn't change the fact it at times feels as like it trying to preach to you).

I'm actually more interested in the way these ideas play with the New Year's setting to amplify themes of self-improvement. I don't recall any point in the film when the holiday or New Year's resolutions were explicitly invoked in this context, but it certainly feels like it's embedded in the subtext.

But of course that's just the tip of the holiday iceberg. The legend at the center of the movie is inherently connected to the season. I suspect it also ties in with older legends of the Wild Hunt, which - in some variants, at least - involve a procession of lost spirits collected over the course of a year.

Along with numerous Christmas myths and stories, I suspect the Wild Hunt may be the inspiration for the sequence in A Christmas Carol where Marley reveals scores of tormented spirits outside Scrooge's window. I think the similarities between The Phantom Carriage and Dickens's classic are largely self-evident - both works involve a man being shown the error of his ways by a spirit, and in both cases the sinner repents and is given a chance to live a better life. I'd be shocked if Lagerlöf hadn't drawn some inspiration from the work when writing her novel. But of course both are part of a much larger tradition: that of Christmas ghost stories.

It's within that context that this sticks out to me the most clearly. Excluding adaptations of A Christmas Carol, I'm fairly certain this is the oldest Christmas horror film I've encountered. As I said at the start, this is also recognized as one of the oldest horror movies in existence, though I should caution that partly depends on how you define "horror movie." After all, there are Georges Méliès shorts produced before the turn of the century that are at the very least forerunners, I'll be the first to argue adaptations of A Christmas Carol shouldn't be counted out, and The Phantom Carriage was at least as much a drama as a horror. But this embraces its darker, fearful supernatural elements in ways the relatively playful Méliès and good-natured Dickens adaptations don't. While none should be left out of the discussion, movies like this, Dr. Caligari, and Nosferatu are clearly different, more modern versions of horror. They set out to scare the viewer in ways earlier movies I've seen haven't.

As a milestone in the evolution of Christmas media, this is one of the most interesting films I've stumbled across. Among other factors, its position at the forefront of the development of the genre makes it a strong argument against those who argue horror films can't really be Christmas movies (assuming they can be convinced New Year's is part of the Christmas holidays, but - you know - one step at a time). It's also an interesting film in its own right, both because of its place in cinematic history and simply as a work of art.

That said, I'd hesitate to recommend this to anyone who isn't used to silent pictures. This is, after all, more than an hour and forty minutes long, most of which is occupied by a drama (though a pretty interesting one, as far as these things go). That's a lot to ask of casual viewers who'd probably be better off starting with short films from the era (no judgment: I certainly worked my way up to things like this).

I'm still tagging this "highly recommended," though. I think its historical importance and artistic merit are significant enough to warrant keeping it in the conversation. Just be aware this probably isn't where you want to start if you've never seen a silent movie longer than ten minutes before.

Before closing, I also want to acknowledge and recommend the commentary track recorded by Casper Tybjerg that Criterion has available (or at least had at the time I wrote this) through their streaming service. If it seemed like I was unusually informed about details connected to how this was filmed and/or the lives of those involved... that's why. It's also just a fascinating exploration of the film worth exploring if you've got the time to watch through a second time.