February 14, 2019
The Phantom Carriage – Sweden, 1921
I confess to being a skeptic whenever someone professes love for a character who has clearly not earned it. So, imagine my reaction when a young social worker, referred to as Sister Edit, erupts with proclamations of love for one David Holm. Such a confession is even more egregious seeing as how, by this time in the film, we’ve seen nothing to endear Mr. Holm to anyone. Oh, we’ve seen him drink himself into a debilitating stupor, castigate social workers for advocating sobriety, and ridicule loved ones for showing concern over his possibly life-threatening influence on his children’s health. What we haven’t seen is any exhibition of empathy or humanity… or kindness or camaraderie or romantic nature. I could go on, but why belabor the point?
David Holm is the central focus of Victor Sjostrom’s otherwise impressive 1921 drama, The Phantom Carriage, and concentrating the film around Holm is a fascinating choice. I say that because the film’s opening moments hint at a different lead, Sister Edit herself. In those opening scenes, we learn that Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) is near death, her condition so without hope that doctors sent her home to be in the presence of loved ones when the end finally comes. In a moment of clarity, she proclaims her desire to see Mr. Holm and entreats those around her to summon him, a request that they set out to oblige.
Movies that begin in this way often then flash back to earlier, happier days, but The Phantom Carriage soon cuts to a scene of three gentlemen getting drunker by the moment. The character that the film later identifies as Mr. Holm, played by Sjostrom himself, shares a story about an old man who was jovial every day of the year other than New Year’s Eve. On that day, he would sit motionless, paralyzed with fear, monitoring the action around him for signs of hazards and counting the minutes until January 1 and another year of relative safety. According to him, the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is cursed to drive Death’s carriage for a year. It’s not difficult to predict just who will be burdened with that responsibility next.
And yet even this does not go exactly where the audience expects, for we never see Mr. Holm take the reins. Instead, his predecessor leads him on a stroll down memory lane, forcing him to relive his greatest insults and poorest choices. In many of these moments, Sjostrom creates an eerie dual reality by superimposing the world of the dead over the world of the living, crafting breathtaking visuals in which the living and the departed pass through each other, utterly oblivious of the other’s presence. Sjostrom also manipulates light and darkness to create powerful impressions of innocence and evil. Rooms look dusty and unkempt, contrasting nicely with the elegant pristine look of those advocating a more moral world.
Films like The Phantom Carriage are probably a product of their time. Modern films rarely embrace religion as successfully as this one does and are much less likely to come out so strongly against drinking. In the wrong hands, films that attempt such feats often are deemed to be sermonizing or endorsing a lifestyle that is too far removed from reality. However, knowing when the film was made, just one years after the beginning of Prohibition in the United States and two years after Sweden, as well as the United States, passed suffrage laws, can help viewers understand the circumstances these characters are facing and perhaps accept some themes that they might otherwise have struggled with.
In truth, films were more religious in the past, and Hollywood films often ended with sudden conversions and last-minute reprieves after the delivery of a long-delayed potent prayer. Such endings can occasionally feel rushed, yet here there is a powerful beauty to it, partly because of the performances Sjostrom gives and gets from the rest of his cast. Particularly strong is Hilda Borgstrom, who plays Mrs. Holm. In one particular scene, Sjostrom spotlights her face during a moment of decision, and we see her expression run through a gambit of emotions before arriving at one that indicates settlement, but not satisfaction. She has embraced desperation, and from her expression we can tell she is well aware of the heartache and instability that is soon to follow.
The Phantom Carriage succeeds because we want better days for Mrs. Holm, we don’t want Sister Edit’s devotion and faith to be all for naught, and we see just enough in Mr. Holm’s eyes for us to know that there is a better man someone beneath the pain, anger, and alcohol. And we see just enough of what it is like to drive Death’s carriage that we would not wish that upon anyone, even a man who causes as much hurt as Mr. Holm. I felt for these characters. I wanted Sister Edit to succeed, for Mrs. Holm to find happiness, for their children to find safety. And yes, I even rooted for Mr. Holm to rediscover God.
Which brings me back to that pronouncement of love. Simply put, the film would be stronger without it, for it calls into question Sister Edit’s motivation, and that is a shame. In flashbacks, we come to know her as a character with a strong will and a deep devotion to charity, religion, and health. Hearing her call Mr. Holm the love of her life – and knowing that none of their interactions explain why she would have such strong feelings for him – weakens her character slightly. After all, sometimes a good person does the right thing because it is in her nature to do so. It is a reality I wish more movies would take to heart. (on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection)
3 and a half stars