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The Phantom Carriage

Victor Sjöström, 1921

Few films have had an impact so enduring as The Phantom Carriage. The film delivers a complex tale of sin and salvation, of selfishness and sacrifice, employing novel devices to achieve hitherto unseen aesthetic effects. Often regarded as ‘The Father of Swedish Cinema’, Sjöström directed over fifty films between the years of 1912-1931 in both Sweden and the USA, achieving international success. None, however, would find quite the same foothold in film history as The Phantom Carriage. Its mark on the history of cinema (and, personally speaking, its mark on my own growth as a student of film) cannot be overstated.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 The Shining, for example, exhibits multiple dramatic parallels to The Phantom Carriage, including themes of alcoholism and deteriorating familial structures, and a climactic moment of a father using an axe to break through a door to where his family are hiding. Likewise, seismically influential Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was himself heavily influenced by Sjöström, particularly Carriage – claiming in his later life to be left ‘shaken’ upon his first viewing. Bergman would go on to direct multiple pictures that gleefully revelled in the imprint Sjöström left. Sjöström, for instance, would eventually take up a role in Bergman’s 1950 To Joy and star in his seminal 1957 Wild Strawberries. In addition to this, Bergman later directed a television-play, The Image Makers, telling the story of The Phantom Carriage’s creation.

Bergman took more direct inspiration from the conversation between Carriage’s two protagonists, Georges and David, reuniting as ghosts after a year’s separation. It is from their first moment of reunion that I have taken my chosen frame. Mirroring this dynamic in the infamous chess game depicted in The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s imagery likewise left a lasting cinematic influence – not least with the 7 hours and 20-minute one-take ‘trailer’ from the 2020 experimental film Ambiance. This excerpt from the 720-hour film was not only filmed at the same location as The Seventh Seal’s chess game, but is visually and theatrically reminiscent of the film’s themes. Thus we can trace the influence behind this scene back to David and Georges’ meeting. A filmic parallel such as this, with an artistic heritage from almost 100 years prior, illustrates the enduring gravity of Sjöström’s masterpiece.

No other moment concentrates to such a degree this influential gravitas as the reunion of David and Georges. On the left sits the ghost of David Holm, having just been the ‘final’ person to die before New Year’s Day. Beside him, the ghost of his old friend Georges who, having been the last person to die the year before, is finally relieving his duty of driving Death’s carriage onto David. Between them lies David’s lifeless body. Despite David’s ignorance and recalcitrance, Georges recounts David's immoral acts through a series of flashbacks, tallying the moral crimes for which he is now due to pay. Ultimately, David repents for his sinful ways, and is offered a chance at redemption by Georges.

This particular frame represents a great deal of historical importance, and may be described as the epicentre for the technological, formal, and dramatic significance of The Phantom Carriage more broadly. Technologically, the most remarkable asset of the film is its extended use of double exposure to achieve the characters' ethereal appearance. Sjöström reunited with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Julius Jaenzon to explore inventive means of narrating the story. The pair employed the use of double exposure, imposing another recording of a scene on already-exposed celluloid, resulting in the figures appearing semi-transparently.

Rather extended passages of time are dedicated to exploring this effect, with multiple scenes of Death’s carriage navigating various landscapes, often intricately integrating the ‘top’ layer into the ‘bottom’ layer. My selected frame likewise employs this device to achieve the effect of having David doubly present. More than just this, however, it further serves an important narratological purpose, narrating for the spectator an ontological distinction between living and nonliving characters throughout the film. Here, of course, we can distinguish between David’s physical corporeal self and his ethereal manifestation. Sjöström and Jaenzon demonstrate such exceptional technical wizardry that one may be forgiven for forgetting that the film is now over 100 years old.

This specific frame serves as an abstraction of another of the film's most notable assets, worthy of both appraisal and critique: its narrative complexity. Carriage’s narrative frames flashbacks within flashbacks through dialogue, weaving a complicated tale. The formal issue at hand is that the film only seldom succeeds at such without heavy reliance on intertitle exposition. Despite its revolutionary poetic pictorial qualities, this particular moment may be said to fail at achieving effective filmic storytelling. For many critics and theorists, such dependence on intertitles poses a problem. Hugo Munsterberg, author of the first monograph to qualify as ‘film studies’ considered film purely a pictorial medium, celebrating “[photoplays] which speak the language of pictures only.”* Narration achieved through double exposure as described above may fit such a bill, but surely a dialogue between two characters, made explicit only through frequent intertitles, would violate this principle. The age-old ‘show don’t tell’ mantra is violated in almost every sequence of the film, and this issue is emphasised due to intertitles being the only available means of this ‘telling’. Classical film theorist Rudolf Arnheim, in his seminal Film as Art, similarly proposes a rule now seemingly archaic: “that it is improper to make films of occurrences whose central features cannot be expressed visually.”** Arnheim, then, might deem it ‘improper’ to have made a conversation between David and Georges a central feature of Carriage. But I argue, in defence of Sjöström, that a great deal of poetic value remains despite its narratological demerits – that is, there are plenty ‘central features’ expressed visually in this frame.

I speak here of how the shot encapsulates the film's theme of redemption, of transforming into an improved version of oneself. It does so by exhibiting multiple dichotomies; the spiritual divide between David's physical being and his inner self; David’s blithe reluctance to follow a righteous path against George’s sorrowful pleas to do so; the opportunity to enact change while living (as ultimately granted by Georges upon David’s recognition of his wrongdoing) against the finality of death. Sjöström establishes such visual dichotomies by means of blocking, creating a dramatic triangle between David, Georges, and David’s body. In addition to this, he goes against his own tendencies to achieve dramatic effect. An oft acknowledged trait of Sjöström, if we are to consider him an auteur, is his use of landscapes for their poetic value. But in this scene, sweeping landscapes are replaced by a still, seemingly frozen cemetery – impressing on the viewer a sense of spatial and emotional (almost existential) claustrophobia. This further offers an additional dramatic dimension. Dividing the visual space among these three focus points (the three subjects), against the static background of a moonlit cemetery, the film brings to the surface questions of agency, the lack thereof upon death, and the consequences of one’s actions.

Indeed, the theme of self-transformation – transitioning from one existential state to another – cannot be, by definition, a static one. Instead, what is required is a point of comparison that affords a measurement of one’s place in the world against another. By seeing Georges, a man of David’s own ilk only a year earlier, now mourning David’s ignorance and begging for him to better his ways after a year of penance, this point of comparison is achieved. This static moment in the cemetery becomes inseparable from every moment that has preceded and will succeed it. These dichotomies illuminate the temporal expansion of one’s actions in the present, whereby one’s place in a year’s time will be determined by the actions of today. The prospective consequences of David’s impassioned cries of ignorant defence are thus given a chilling prescience. It is this emotional delicacy and maturity that renders the film’s thesis so ubiquitously applicable to all, such that it upholds its effectiveness across the passing of a century.

Above I have drawn three integrated lines of discussion concerning the significance of The Phantom Carriage, and in particular the discussion between David and Georges. The chosen frame serves as an abstraction of the film’s technological, narratological and dramatic dimensions. This moment, despite its dependence on intertitles, employs advanced technical cinematography and blocking to narrate the dramatic themes resonating throughout the rest of the film. While there may be unique technological, narratological or dramatic dimensions to other moments of the film, all three of these lines traced lead back to this pivotal moment. Achieving all this in the early 1920s, the shot serves as a historical bookmark. More than this, the shot is an evocation of creative technical ambition, of the development of complex and subtle narration via cinematic means, and of the betterment of oneself in gratitude for living. Victor Sjöström delivers a genuinely haunting and touching portrait of realising and confronting one’s wrongdoings in the face of death, and this one image is representative of all this.

And it was taken over 100 years ago.

* Hugo Münsterberg, The Film: A Psychological Study (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), p.86.

** Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (London: Faber and Faber LTD., 1958[1933], p.58


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