Three or four months ago, I had just discovered the Russian funeral-doom band known as Ankhagram. As is customary at such times, I listened to a selection of the group’s musical offerings on YouTube. At some point I chose a video entitled Song to Say Goodbye. As the mournful music began, a scene from what could only have been a silent film appeared on my computer screen.
A man sits at his desk smoking a cigarette pensively. Without warning, he opens a desk draw and removes a pistol. The scene changes and a ghostly figure wearing a hood and long robe appears. The figure walks through the solid doors and gazes upon the lifeless body of the suicide victim lying on the floor. The sorrowful figure lifts the dead man’s spirit out of his body and carries it outside, where he places it in the back of a phantasmal carriage led by a horse. Thus began my interest in a 1921 Swedish film called The Phantom Carriage.
The production, which both starred and was directed by Victor Sjostrom, opens with Syster Edit (Astrid Holm), a Salvation Army worker, lying in her death bed. She makes one final request of her friend and co-worker, Syster Maria (Lisa Lundholm), asking that she attempt to find a certain David Holm (Victor Sjostrom) and bring him to her one last time.
Meanwhile, Mr. Holm is sitting in the darkness of a nearby cemetery getting drunk with a couple of friends. It’s New Year’s Eve and as the midnight hour approaches, Holm decides to tell his companions a ghost story about a former friend named Georges, who had imparted some valuable information one New Year’s Eve.
On that night Georges had told his companions that whoever dies on New Year’s Eve must drive the cart of death, a task for which the driver would be greeted only by sorrow and despair. “The last soul to die each year,” Georges had told him, “the one to give up the ghost, at the stroke of midnight, is destined to be death’s driver during the coming year.” Georges himself, Holm added, had passed from this world on the previous New Year’s Eve.
As Holm finishes his story, Gustafsson, another associate of Syster Edit, discovers him in the cemetery. The drunk man refuses to accompany Gustafsson back to Syster Edit’s death bed and the gentleman has no choice but to leave without him. Holm’s companions however, attempt to convince him that he must go to honor the dying lady. Holm’s reluctance continues and a fight ensues. The struggle ends when one of the men strikes a blow to the defiant man’s head with a bottle. Holm falls to the ground—his body limp. The men gaze upward to see that the hands a nearby clock have just arrived at 12:00 midnight. Horrified, the two scatter. Shortly after, the ghost of David Holm rises from his limp body only to confront the death cart and it’s driver, his old friend Georges.
The Phantom Carriage is a film about selfishness and redemption. Through the use of flashback, a narrative style almost unused at the time, David Holm is revealed as a man of vile character, a rude drunkard who has exposed the kindhearted Syster Edit as well as his own wife to the ravages of consumption (tuberculosis) without a care. In a style somewhat reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Georges attempts to show Holm, who must now relieve him as the driver of the carriage, the error of his ways. When the ghostly drunkard sees his distraught wife, Anna, preparing to take her own life as well as those of their children, he pleads with Georges to intervene. The death cart driver sadly informs him that he has no power over the living.
The Phantom Carriage, which was based on a novel entitled Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness by the Nobel Prize winning author Selma Lagerlof, is regarded as a vital piece of the Swedish film legacy. The production is highly regarded for its special effects and its unique style of narration. It is also an early example in the evolution of horror films.
For those who would like to watch the movie, it’s available on YouTube, as is an official trailer. That said, the Ankhagram video that first attracted this reviewer to the film serves as an excellent trailer in and of itself. And, if you enjoy doom metal, you’ll be in for a real treat.