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« Cult Clip: And Soon The Darkness trailer (1970) | Main | DVD Review: Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery 10th Anniversary Special Edition (1997) »

DVD Review: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Pc The silent film that motivated Ingmar Bergman to work in cinema has been given new life in Tartan’s re-release, which matches an artfully tinted, restored print to a new ambient soundtrack by Stephen O’Malley of SunnO))) and Peter Rehberg.

Victor Sjöström’s evocative morality tale, based on the novel by Selma Lagerlöf, exhibits a narrative and emotional sophistication astonishing for its time, as well as groundbreaking special effects. While the density of plotting sometimes works against the piece’s pedagogical aspirations, and the uniformly ominous score risks constraining the tonal variety of the story, the whole is nevertheless an intriguing and genuinely unnerving proposition.

On New Year’s Eve, dissipated, consumptive drunkard David Holm (played by Sjöström himself) is passing the time with his gravedigger colleagues. They discuss an old legend wherein the soul of whoever dies on the stroke of midnight is compelled to be the Grim Reaper for the next year.

Across town, a Salvation Army nurse lies on her deathbed. She sends for David, whom she loves and has been trying to reform, though with little success. David ignores her call. His colleagues urge him to go and, piqued by their nagging, he insults them. A fight ensues and David is apparently killed.

His soul ‘awakens’ into death and he is greeted by the incumbent Reaper, a man whom he knew in life. The man explains that David must now take on his job, but that first his irresponsible life must be revisited, Scrooge-style. Through a series of nested narratives, we learn of how appallingly he has treated the nurse, his estranged wife (Hilda Borgström) and their two children. In scenes in which his behaviour borders on psychopathic, he rips apart a coat that the nurse has spent hours stitching for him, and attempts to deliberately infect his wife and daughters with TB.

Moved by this recapitulation of his sins, he at last becomes truly remorseful, wanting desperately to prevent his wife from committing suicide and infanticide but powerless to intervene. At the moment of his redemption, he awakens back into his body, the vision of a hellish afterlife seemingly just that, and rushes to his wife’s side in reality. Despite the heavy-handed moralising on display, the film ends on an ambiguous note: David is unsure whether his illness will allow him enough time on earth to atone for his innumerable wrongs.

Sjöström’s compositional instincts are superb: all scenes (even the ones without the ghostly superimposition effects) are elegant and uncluttered, performances are surprisingly naturalistic (none of the wild gesticulations or eyebrow-spasming of early German cinema) and he judiciously omits intertitles when dialogue can be inferred.

Apocryphally, the director read the entire screenplay aloud to author Lagerlöf, then collapsed of exhaustion. As well he might: the middle third of the film is distinctly overweight, with much redundancy in the kick-the-dog episodes establishing Holm’s character as a Nasty Piece of Work. In the end though, they do their job well; the moment of David’s repentance is an emotional one.

As for the audio, O’Malley and Rehberg do a beguiling line in atonal, unsettling soundscape, all rumbling sub-bass and ethereal texture. Dynamics and perceivable structure are effectively absent. This is all very well when applied to visuals with a compatible aesthetic, but it is unlikely that Sjöström intended The Phantom Carriage to have as relentless an otherness as the new soundtrack imposes on it. That is certainly not to say that the score is unaccomplished, just that it constitutes a repurposing somewhat more significant than purists may endorse.

For existing fans of Sjöström’s work, this edition is well worth a look and (perhaps more importantly) a listen. Newcomers might well find that the updated audio makes the film more accessible, even as traditionalist cineastes cry foul. A classic experimented with, still a classic.

Sam Healy


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