The Phantom Carriage – The Criterion Collection #579 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
September 21, 2011 by Dennis Amith
The Swedish silent film that would inspire filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, “The Phantom Carriage” was a film at the time that could be seen as psychological and quite haunting but also an early silent film that explored human misery, melancholy and the psychology of its characters. An important film of Swedish cinema and another fantastic inclusion for the Criterion Collection.
Image courtesy of © 1921 AB Svensk Filmindustri. 2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: The Phantom Carriage – The Criterion Collection #579
MOVIE RELEASE: 1921
DURATION: 106 Minutes
DVD INFORMATION: Tinted Color, Silent, Swedish Intertitles with English Subtitles, 1:37:1 Aspect Ratio
COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection
RELEASE DATE: September 27, 2011
Directed by Victor Sjöström
Based on the novel by Selma Lagerlof
Written by Victor Sjöström
Produced by Charles Magnusson
Cinematography by Julius Jaenszon
Victor Sjöström as David Holm
Hilda Borgstrom as Mrs. Holm
Tore Svennberg as Georges
Astrid Holm as Edit
Concordia Selander as Edit’s Mother
Lisa Lundholm as Maria
Tor Weijden as Gustafsson
The last person to die on New Year’s Eve before the clock strikes twelve is doomed to take the reins of Death’s chariot and work tirelessly collecting fresh souls for the next year. So says the legend that drives The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen), directed by the father of Swedish cinema, Victor Sjöström. The story, based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, concerns an alcoholic, abusive ne’er-do-well (Sjöström himself) who is shown the error of his ways, and the pure-of-heart Salvation Army sister who believes in his redemption. This extraordinarily rich and innovative silent classic (which inspired Ingmar Bergman to make movies) is a Dickensian ghost story and a deeply moving morality tale, as well as a showcase for groundbreaking special effects.
A psychological film that probes into the mental anguish and misery of a character, “The Phantom Carriage” is a film that inspired filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman but also a film that would be the precursor of Bergman’s probe into the psyche of his characters throughout his oeuvre.
“The Phantom Carriage” (Körkarlen) is a silent film from 1921 that is a film adaptation of the novel “They Soul Shall Bear Witness!” by Nobel-prize winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (the first female writer to win the prize and is best known for her children’s book “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils”).
The film would be directed by Victor Sjöström who would also play the lead role of the film.
Known for directing films in the U.S. during the 1920’s, it’s unfortunate that for a talented filmmaker and actor, the majority of his films are considered as lost. Fortunately, those that did survive are his film adaptations of Lagerlöf novels such as the “Sons of Ingmar” (1919), “Karin, Daughter of Ingmar” (1920) and “The Phantom Carriage” (1921). The latter which received restoration courtesy of the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute.
And now, “The Phantom Carriage” will receive its HD treatment on Blu-ray and also standard DVD release courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
“The Phantom Carriage” begins with a dying Salvation Army worker named Edit (played by Astrid Holm) making one last wish for her friend Maria (played by Lisa Lundholm)to do something for her and that is to find David Holm.
When we see David Holm (played by Victor Sjöström), we see an alcoholic that is sitting with two other alcoholics as they talked about their friend Georges and a story Georges used to tell about Death’s carriage. According to Georges, the last person who dies at the end of the year has to work under Death and collect the souls of those who die the following year. Interesting enough, Georges told the story and he was the last person to die last year.
Meanwhile, as Maria and her friend Gustafsson (played by Tor Weijden) try to look for David, when Gustaffson tries to convince him to see her, he refuses. His alcoholic friends try to get him to go but he gets upset and starts fighting them and ends up dying before midnight.
David is now dead and coming by carriage is a driver who has come to collect souls and sure enough, it happens to be Georges.
As David’s soul leaves its body and joins Georges and in the process, Georges reminds David how his life with his wife Anna (played by Hilda Borgström) and his two daughters used to be happy but when David started to associate with bad people and started to drink a lot of alcohol, it became too much.
David would become an alcoholic and would be responsible for driving away his wife and children. A year ago, now sick with tuberculosis, sick from his illness and because of his alcoholism, he was taken care of by the Salvation Army worker named Edit. Despite how badly David treated her, she would pray for him and believed that he would change for the best and get well.
Not being a God-believing person, David promised her that after a year, he would let her know whether her prayers worked for him or not.
As David and Georges go to see Edit (as she is about to die), we see another flashback of how Edit tried her best to stop David from drinking and how his friend Gustafsson became a believer of God and submitted to God and stopped drinking. Of course, David doesn’t believe any of it. But as Edit tries to get him to attend a Salvation Army meeting, also in attendance is David’s wife who hoped that David would change his way.
But one night, drunken and coming to Edit and the kid’s home, he became a danger to them. So, badly that when Edit and the kids tried to escape once again, she locks him in a room and tries to escape. But David finds an axe and chops down the door and confronts her and we get to see the worst in David.
Needless to say, Georges shows David on how his actions have affected his wife and children but also Edit. But how will David react when he finds out the true reason of why Edit needed to see him so badly and also what effect he had on his wife and family, that may very well end in tragedy for his wife and children.
“The Phantom Carriage” is presented in High Definition, tinted color and the fact that earlier versions that many people have watched this in the past were not in the greatest condition and considering the fact that the original film elements were not fully complete, I was quite amazed to see how beautiful this film looked on Blu-ray.
The film also utilized double exposures made in the camera but used in a greater form for the film in order to create the ghost characters. A very challenging special effect for its time.
Presented as a color-tinted silent film, “The Phantom Carriage” on Blu-ray is the best version of the film to date. Is it pristine? The answer is no. You can see occasional white specks, hairs or tears on the original film element, flickering but with that being said, none of these will ruin one’s viewing of the film. In fact, the fact that it’s complete, not hindered by any nitrate composition or any degradation, for a film that is 90-years-old, if you are a silent film fan, you can’t help but be appreciative that the film look so good and that the Criterion Collection has chosen to release this film on Blu-ray.
According to the Criterion Collection, the restoration of “The Phantom Carriage” was undertaken by the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute. A new film master was created from two source elements, an incomplete black-and-white nitrate print with Swedish intertitles and an incomplete color-tinted nitrate with print with English intertitles. From these source elements, a new black-and-white duplicate negative with Swedish intertitles was completed in 1975. New 35 mm polyester viewing prints were then struck from this restored negative, using the color-tinted nitrate print as a color reference.
Criterion Collection also pointed out that the new digital transfer was created on an ARRISCAN film scanner in 2K resolution from the new duplicate negative, at the Chimney Pot in Stokcholm, using the same color-tinted print from the Swedish Film Institute as reference. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system while Digital Vision’s Phoenix system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“The Phantom Carriage ” is presented with two scores. One by Swedish composer Matti Bye and the other by the experimental duo KTL.
The original 1998 Matti Bye composition used on this Blu-ray release is absolutely beautiful. Presented in DTS-HD MA, the music with its piano, horns and strings does a great job of enhancing my appreciation of the film. The music is coordinated just right to the scenes of the film and for the most part, is a wonderful score which sounds great via lossless.
As for the KTL soundtrack is presented in LPCM 2.0 and the experimental music makes this film feel quite dark and menacing. It stays that way throughout the whole film and the sound is quite eery. The score of course is subjective to the listener but listening to the score and watching the film, it gives you the feel of a horror film.
So, overall, I preferred the Matti Bye soundtrack because it is more emotional and upbeat compared to the KTL experimental score.
The film is presented with Swedish intertitles in English and special features with English subtitles.
“The Phantom Carriage – The Criterion Collection #579” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:
- Audio Commentary-featuring an in-depth audio commentary by film historian Casper Tybjerg who helps explain the film but also the sentiments of the viewers watching the film at the time.
- Ingmar Bergman – (15:19) An interview with Ingmar Bergman, excerpted from the 1981 documentary “Victor Sjöström: A Portrait”, by Gösta Werner
- The Bergman Connection – (18:12) An original visual essay by film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie on the film’s influence on Bergman.
- Construction of the Räsunda Studio -(4:43) Short footage of where “The Phantom Carriage” was the inaugural production.
“The Phantom Carriage – The Criterion Collection #579” comes with an 20-page booklet. The essay “Phantom Forms” by Paul Mayersberg is included plus information on the two scores included on this Blu-ray release.
We often hear from filmmakers in America who talk about the American filmmakers and films that inspired them to pursue a career in the industry.
In Sweden, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman who was only a 1-year-old when “The Phantom Carriage” came out, would later become inspired by Victor Sjöström’s work and how his exploration of the human psyche, their melancholy, a character being miserable and the emotional pain that they harbor inside..these are things that are a big part of Bergman’s oeuvre.
As Bergman is known as the filmmaker to capture human suffering, for Bergman it began with Victor Sjöström who would go on to introduce his style of filmmaking in America and showcase the mental anguish of a person in “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924), “The Scarlet Letter” (1926) and “The Wind” (1928). And while many historians have always recommended Sjöström’s “The Wind” (as it is one of Lillian Gish’s finest acting performances), “The Phantom Carriage” was definitely a film which is a product of its time that does have its relevance today.
We have seen how alcoholism affected a person, especially a father and his family in film. This is nothing new. But in 1921, alcoholism was never fully explored, nor its ramifications. Tuberculosis is still a problem today, but even moreso back then. It was a bold film to take on such a subject of how an alcoholic can hurt his family and others, but also lead to one’s death. And yes, there is a little introduction to how those who submitted to God have changed for the best, but for those who frown upon preachy religious films, this is not one of them.
If anything, one can easily call this a psychological thriller mixed with drama. The film for its time can be seen as dark as it showcased human suffering and interesting enough, Stanley Kubrick’s film “The Shining” which has a famous axe scene is quite similar to the axe scene found in this film. Granted, this is not a horror film but compared to other silent horror films that I have seen (which are not too scary), I can only imagine how audiences reacted when they first watched this film. It’s definitely not a happy upbeat film but it does manage to work itself out in the end and I guess, one can say the film is not all tragic.
There are life changing moments and for the most part, “The Phantom Carriage” is a pre-cursor of the human suffering type of films that Victor Sjöström would create several years later and a theme that would have its impact on Ingmar Bergman’s work.
So, “The Phantom Carriage” does have its place as an important film not only to Swedish cinema but also for its darker theme that was not as prevalent in 1921. But as many people are discovering Ingmar Bergman’s films through the new releases on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection, the company has been good in showing films in which these filmmakers were inspired from.
So, this is one important film that fans of Bergman’s work can really enjoy. So, as Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo were an inspiration to future French filmmakers, Victor Sjöström was the same as he inspired Swedish filmmakers, specifically Ingmar Bergman. And for Bergman, he had watched this film over 100 times and has said that from the first time he had watched the film, he would eventually watch it every year since then.
“The Phantom Carriage” was a big impact on his life and to know Bergman’s work and why he is so enamored with human suffering, you need to look past Bergman and watch a Victor Sjöström film.
“The Phantom Carriage” is recommended!
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