(Reprint from The Haunted Cinema)
Despite the festive warmth of the holiday season, there is often an air of melancholy hanging over the Christmas season. It’s no coincidence that two of the holiday’s main icons, Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, are representatives of maximum grumpiness, although both are, of course, won over in the end to the Christmas spirit. But it’s obvious that this darker side has been a known element since long before Elvis sang about a “Blue Christmas” or aging hipsters bought CDs with titles like Yule Be Miserable.
On that subject, it’s hard to beat the Scandinavians for sheer existential bleakness, and it’s all to be found in director Victor Sjöström’s silent, black and white classic The Phantom Carriage (1921), which is part supernatural fairy tale and several parts bleak, realistic exploration of Swedish social issues: alcoholism, tuberculosis, and domestic abuse.
The 1912 source novel, by acclaimed Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, was written in part to educate the public about tuberculosis, but its supernatural element always seems to have appealed to readers. The English translation was given the more overtly religious title Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, but the original Swedish was Körkarlen, which does mean “Phantom Carriage,” returning the movie to the story’s roots.
The film opens on New Year’s Eve, with Christmas trees still in the backgrounds of several scenes, at the deathbed of Sister Edit (played by Astrid Holm, whose next film would be the silent witchcraft documentary Häxan).
Just one year ago she was happy and idealistic about the opening of a Salvation Army “slumstation,” but unfortunately, her chance encounter with the surly drunk David Holm, played by Sjöström, led to her ruin. She caught tuberculosis from him even as her professional sympathy was giving way to love, and now her social worker friends race to find him, to fulfill her dying wish. At the same time, out on the street, Holm discovers that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is forced to spend the next year working for Death, collecting the souls of the recently deceased. He’s slated to take on the job from an old friend who died last year, but before retiring, the current carriageman takes Holm on a series of Christmas Carol-like visitations to show him the repercussions of his life’s mistakes.
Chief among these were his cruelty to his family, so much so that his wife fled after he threatened to deliberately infect their children with TB. Believing that his family’s presence would help Holm reform, Sister Edit convinces her to return (a mistake she later realizes and tries to make amends for), but he continues his abusive, alcoholic ways, including a scene which unexpectedly foreshadows the famous “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining.
When he realizes the depths of the despair he has caused, the now-ghostly Holm has to race against time to prevent a horrible tragedy. Not surprising in an obvious morality tale, he winds up winning another chance to become a better person, but despite the redemptive nature of the storyline, the film is still pretty depressing, presenting a grim picture of life’s struggles in the old country.
The supernatural material is nicely eerie and atmospheric, with respectable special effects, especially its spectral double exposures. Overall, The Phantom Carriage makes excellent use of the limitations of the black and white medium, and even the slightly alienating effect of silent film. This film is not necessarily recommended for those susceptible to Christmas-induced depression or seasonal affective disorders, but it is an affecting classic of Scandinavian cinema, with its own spooky charms.