Combustible Celluloid
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With: Victor Sjstrm, Hilda Borgstrm, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander, Lisa Lundholm, Tor Weijden, Einar Axelsson, Olof s, Nils Arehn
Written by: Victor Sjstrm, based on a novel by Selma Lagerlf
Directed by: Victor Sjstrm
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 106
Date: 01/01/1921

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Rage Coach

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Swedish-born Victor Sjöström was arguably one of the major directors of the silent era, though his star has fallen today. In 2008, a handful of minor Sjöström's films were released on DVD, but his most famous and notable films were still absent, among them The Phantom Carriage (1921), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), and The Wind (1928). Recently He Who Gets Slapped, an amazing film starring Lon Chaney, was released as a Warner Archive title. And now here comes The Phantom Carriage in a magnificent Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Phantom Carriage was quite spiritually and emotionally advanced for its day, comparable to Chaplin's The Kid, from the same year, and to D.W. Griffith, whose Broken Blossoms (1919) might have influenced Sjöström. But it was also a huge technical achievement, haunting viewers with its astonishing multiple-exposures, suggesting a ghostly carriage and driver existing within, but separate from, the earthly plane. These effects are still striking, even by today's standards.

Sjöström stars in the film, but the action begins on Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) of the Salvation Army. It's New Year's Eve, and she's dying. Her last request is to see one David Holm (Sjöström). Who is David Holm? Is he some kind of spiritual guide? No... he's perhaps the biggest scoundrel ever to appear on film. He's so vile that his very clothes and breath carry enough germs to infect and kill innocent people.

David is shown boozing it up with a couple of other winos in a graveyard, waiting for midnight. We learn the Scandinavian legend about how the last person to die on New Year's Eve becomes Death's coachman, responsible for picking up all the dead spirits for transportation to the afterlife. Needless to say, this is an honor that no one particularly wants. David gets into a fight with his comrades and they accidentally beat him to death, just seconds before the bell chimes.

The current coachman arrives, and it's an old buddy of David's. Like an early version of It's a Wonderful Life, the coachman tries to give David an outsider's view of his miserable life. We see some extraordinarily cruel moments, but none more potent than the one involving David's coat. He stumbles into the Salvation Army one night and passes out on a bed. The god Sister Edit spends all night mending his filthy coat (the thing that made her terminally ill), and in the morning he summons her, and rips all the stitches out in front of her.

With the shadow of death falling over everything and everyone he ever knew, David eventually finds his spiritual redemption, voluntarily sacrificing himself to save his loved ones. It's a powerful ending, and Sjöström does not let it linger onscreen so that it can linger in our minds all that much longer. Moreover, this is not just a flip-of-the-switch redemption. Thanks to Sjöström's canny performance David is shown to have a soul, and moments of humanity. His cruelty and vicious behavior is clearly the result of pain and anguish. He's not pure evil; he's lashing out.

The finished film, which was released on New Year's Day, had a huge impact on viewers and critics everywhere. As a result, Sjöström was invited to make films in Hollywood. But perhaps the biggest impact was upon young Ingmar Bergman, who eventually saw the film more than 100 times and declared it the greatest movie ever made. Years later, Bergman would make Wild Strawberries (1957), starring the aged Sjöström as Dr. Isak Borg, and in many scenes visually paying tribute to The Phantom Carriage. Now that the original film is available to see again, I expect it will turn up on more all-time ten-best lists.

Criterion's Blu-Ray features a glorious picture; if you haven't yet seen a silent-era film on Blu-Ray, you'll be astonished at how much it actually looks like a film print. The disc features two musical scores. The first one, by composer Matti Bye, is good, but I far prefer the creepy, metallic, otherworldly one by the experimental duo KTL. The audio commentary track is by historian Casper Tybjerg, who also recorded tracks for The Passion of Joan of Arc and Haxan. There's a featurette comparing Bergman's works to Sjöström's, and an interview with Bergman. The liner notes features an essay by screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Croupier).

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