Wednesday, July 27, 2011

One Swede Ride: Musings on The Phantom Carriage (Korkarlen)

Let me get one thing out of the way right from the start. I am giving this film a higher grade than my pure enjoyment of it might lead me to give it because I was unable to watch it under optimal conditions. Not having access to a DVD or online copy of the film, I was forced to watch it on YouTube. More than that, the only visually correct form I could find was not translated into English. I had to ignore the subtitles and simply read a synopsis of the film so I understood what was going on. Furthermore, this version of the film had a score that, while creepy and appropriate, was not the original score of the film. I feel confident that if I had not faced all of these difficulties and distractions I would have enjoyed the film more, so I am grading it on a curve, so to speak.

This is not the first film in which I have seen the great Victor Sjostrom. It is the first film that he directed and wrote which I have seen, but I saw him act in the Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries. His performance in that film at the age of 78, of an old professor reminiscing about his past and struggling with his relationship with his son, daughter-in-law, and how he is partly responsible for their misfortunes, was heartwarming, powerful, and bittersweet, one of the finest acting performances I have had the pleasure to see. He certainly does not disappoint in this film, The Phantom Carriage, either. This film was a major influence on Bergman, one of my favorite directors, and the main reason he asked Sjostrom to be in his film. Seeing this film 80 years after its initial release, I can see how it could be a huge influence on a young man with an interest in film.

If a modern film watcher is going to watch a silent movie, he/she had better have an appreciation of one of two things: slapstick comedy and/or melodrama. This film certainly serves up a great deal of the latter. The film focuses on the life of one David Holm, played by Sjostrom himself. Holm is a violent, hateful drunk. He has caused great pain for two women we learn. One, Sister Edit of the Red Cross (Astrid Holm) is dying and wants to see Holm before she dies, because she hope her prayers that he might turn his life around were answered (so far, they haven't been). The other is his own wife (Hilda Borgstom) who is filled with misery because of his treatment of her and their children. The drunken Holm is so heartless that even when a friend comes to him and tells him of the dying woman's request, he will not come. He would much rather spend his time drinking and playing cards with his friends.

"Hey buddy, you're just in time! We were just about to start a game of Strip Poker. Care to join?"
Holm will soon change his tune, however. You see, it is New Years Eve, and Holm recounts to his drinking buddies an old folk tale his friend George once told him. Supposedly, at the end of the year, if you are the last person on Earth to die, you must spend the next year of your life working as Death incarnate, traveling the world in a ghostly carriage taking the dead into the next world. A big coincidence is that this same friend, George, happened to die right before the stroke of midnight last New Years Eve. Another big coincidence is that, when his friends try to force him to go see the dying Sister Edit, one of them accidentally kills Holm right before midnight. And, wouldn't you know it, Death (aka George) shows up to reap the soul of his former friend, now his replacement.

Fun Fact: He has a bumper sticker in back that reads, "My Other Carriage is Corporeal."
George is shocked to find that his old friend Holm will be his replacement, and is saddened at the state of his life. He himself is filled with regret that the two of them wasted their lives drinking. George spends the whole night showing Holm how his life has gone horribly wrong, and how he has hurt many people, even those close to him, through his drinking and self loathing which turns into hatred of everything. We see how when Edit tried to help him get up from rock bottom he laughed at her, wanting to act as if he needed no one's help. We see how in his drunkenness he hurts his wife and his children. In a fantastic use of editing, we see how his life was turned around by drinking. One moment we see Holm playing with his children and having a picnic with his wife, clearly loving life. The next minute, in the same spot, we see a flashforward of his sitting on the same ground, but now with alcohol in his hand, his clothes shabby, drinking it up with other worthless bums.
"You're dead to me David! Well, technically, you're dead to everyone now..."

While this film can seem a little overlong at times, it is filled with scenes such as this which show true brilliance and still have the power to touch audiences. The scenes of the Phantom Carriage itself, crossing mountains, plains and even the mighty ocean itself to reap immortal souls, whether they be suicides in studies or drownings at the bottom of a raging sea, are all chillingly fantastic. Another great edit occurs when we see Holm first refuse to go see Sister Edit, and then we cut to Edit jumping up in bed and clutching her chest as though wounded. Most famous of all, and most terrifying, is the scene in which a drunken Holm is locked away in the kitchen by his wife, who is attempting to protect the children from his tuberculosis, and Holm decides to use and axe to chop his way through the door. This chilling scene was directly parodies in my favorite horror film of all time, The Shining.

"I simply must stop locking myself out of the house. Or at least figure a way of getting inside that is less costly than chopping down the door. I mean it's not as if doors simply grown on trees! Well, I guess since they're made of wood they technically do, but you get my point."

Another thing which makes this film great is the acting. Sjostrom is fantastic at playing both the violence, drunken, uncaring version of Holm, as well as expressing believable horror as he sees the damage he has done, even driving his wife to try and kill herself and their children. Tore Svennberg as George is haunted, intimidating, and yet somehow still very human. However, it is Borgstrom (a long time Sjostrom collaborator) who steals the show as the pained and miserable Mrs. Holm. The scene in which she is brought before Edit, who tried to get her back with David in order to help him find redemption, only to have his remain remain a drunken brute, is marvelous. She leans over the dying girl with a look of anger, of hatred. She leans down, her hands outstretched and curled like claws, seeming to want to strangle the woman who brought this monster back into her life when she though she had escaped him. However, when Edit, the pure angel, rises and kisses her saying, "Poor Mrs. Holm," she breaks down and weeps. The scene in which she first sees David again, the pain and disbelief in her eyes, is wonderful. And, of course, when the drunken David messes with her children, throws a towel in her face, and then breaks down the kitchen door to get at her, her fear is palpable.

Yet what makes this film truly great and groundbreaking are its special effects. Huge amounts of post production work were done overlaying images on top of one another. This allowed all of the "ghosts" in the film to appear to be see-through. The actors and objects that are ghostly can stand in front of object, and we can still see those objects, yet we can also see the ghost. Nothing like this had been done up to this point in cinema in 1921. The effects are visually stunning even today when we are spoiled with CGI. No wonder it impressed future filmmakers like Bergman so much.

No joke this time, I just think this image is really freakin' cool.

Again, I had many limitations put up in the way of my enjoying this film. However, the fact that I still loved it speaks volumes. I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to see this film in 1921. Even today it is impressive. Visually stunning and quite moving, showing true brilliance of direction, this is certainly a landmark film. I consider this film to be Amazing and give it an 8/10.

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