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Internationally, Victor Sjöström is best known for his performance as Professor Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). But behind that unforgettable face of old age is a younger man, a leading actor who was also the greatest Swedish film director before Bergman. The Phantom Carriage (1921), based on Körkarlen, a novel by the 1909 Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, is Sjöström’s most famous film. Körkarlen means “the driver” or “the coachman.” The film was also known as The Stroke of Midnight in the U.S., and Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness in the UK. The different titles reflect the uncertainty of distributors at the time in identifying its genre: ghost story, horror, thriller, religious fable?
While American silent cinema was defined by its various genres—comedy, melodrama, adventure—Swedish cinema was almost entirely devoted to national folktales and sagas, which gave it a unique identity, a landscape never seen before. With films like A Man There Was (1917), The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), and The Sons of Ingmar (1919), Sjöström was established as a master, with a reputation as grand, if not as international, as D. W. Griffith’s. Then came The Phantom Carriage, a major departure from his outdoor dramas.
The film begins on New Year’s Eve. Edit (Astrid Holm), a Salvation Army sister, is dying of tuberculosis. She sits up in her bed to call for a man named David Holm before she dies. The clock ticks toward midnight. David (Sjöström), a violent alcoholic, is located drinking with down-and-out friends in a cemetery. He refuses to visit Edit, gets into a brawl, and is accidentally struck dead at the midnight hour. A carriage arrives in a ghostly double exposure, with a phantom hooded coachman, Georges (Tore Svennberg), to take away David’s soul. The legend is that any person who dies at midnight himself becomes the new coachman employed by Death to pick up souls and wait for next year’s midnight death, when he will hand over the reins of the carriage to the new incumbent.
At death, David is forced to recall his life, and his mind becomes the narrative itself. Through an intricate series of flashbacks, we discover a reprobate who has abused his wife (Hilda Borgström) and children, his younger brother (Einar Axelsson), and Edit, whose mission has been to personally save him from his addiction. Lagerlöf, whose book owes much to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, was the star of Swedish fiction, and Sjöström himself filmed four of her novels. Together with their friend the director Mauritz Stiller—who discovered Greta Gustafsson and turned her into Garbo in The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924)—they created the golden age of Swedish cinema, which declined abruptly when they all left for Hollywood.
Sjöström quarreled with Lagerlöf about the style of the adaptation of The Phantom Carriage. She wanted it shot on location in the southern town of Landskrona. He opted for a studio production at Filmstaden in Råsunda, built for the new company Svensk Filmindustri. The film was a bold experiment in controlled conditions, carried out with his cinematographer, Julius Jaenzon, who had already used double exposure in Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919), and the laboratory work of Éugen Hellman. This time, the superimpositions were layered up to four times. The ghosts appeared to move within the sets, disappearing from time to time behind the other characters and the solid foreground objects. A hand-moved camera followed each of them. And they were lit differently, using filters, to give them a special reality. The final effect was to create a seemingly three-dimensional image. Sjöström’s studio work did not undermine his realism but enhanced it. The sets, interior and exterior, were shot in exceptionally deep focus for the time. Busy background action was as clear as the foreground, impossible without artificial studio lighting.
Before 1920, the cinema has no history of its own. In Germany, Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst, the fathers of film noir, continued the theatrical and painterly tradition of expressionism. In France, Louis Feuillade, the father of comic-book cinema, made serials in which fantastic, costumed characters roamed the real streets of Paris. In Italy, Giovanni Pastrone, father of the epic, went straight back to the Roman Empire. But like Griffith, Sjöström explored what Bergman called the ultimate truth of cinema, the human face, to which Sjöström constantly guides us even without close-ups.
Coming from the theater, Sjöström nonetheless rejected traditional stage acting as detrimental to films. He wanted another style of performance since the dialogue could not be heard, concentrating on face, movements, and gestures. His own performance in The Phantom Carriage avoids melodrama by admitting David’s inner confusion, which simultaneously erupts into violence. His outward realism explores inner states. Some of the intertitles are actually voice-over, as he talks to himself.
The scene where David takes an ax and splinters a locked door to get to his terrified wife and children is an exact forerunner of the crazed attack by Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining (1980). There is a similar scene in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, made a year before The Phantom Carriage, which Sjöström may or may not have seen. Interestingly, Kubrick played down Jack’s progressive alcoholism from Stephen King’s original and went for out-and-out schizophrenia, the origins of which he scrupulously avoided. Sjöström hints at social causes, poverty and unemployment, but the truth about David may lie elsewhere.
In 1881, as a small child, Sjöström went to America with his father, Olaf, and mother, Maria Elizabeth, to whom he was devoted. Tragically, she died when he was seven, and soon afterward his father married the family nursemaid, twenty years his junior, whom Victor did not like. Olaf was a womanizer, twice bankrupt, and a born-again Christian. In 1893, Victor was returned to Sweden to live with his aunt. (By then, he was fluent in English, which was extremely valuable when, in the twenties, he returned to America.) All his life, Sjöström feared becoming like his father, whom he closely resembled physically. He lived frugally and was terrified, even when successful, of being without money. Perhaps his rendering of David’s alcoholism derived from the tensions in Sjöström’s relationship with his father. His performance is so realistically and subtly detailed that it may have come from precise memories, a ghostly reincarnation of his father, in other hands a model for a horror film.
The father and God. The film is surprisingly disconnected from Swedish Lutheranism. It is closer to Bergman’s demonic Hour of the Wolf (1968) than to the religious crisis of Winter Light (1962). David’s sudden conversion at the end is not altogether convincing. He is given a last chance by coming back from the dead to save his wife from poisoning herself and their children out of hopeless desperation. But it isn’t God the Father who intervenes. It is his dead predecessor, coachman Georges, who is touched by David’s loving wife and the devoted Edit, who have fought so hard and long to save the man.
Sjöström’s women are independently minded rather than compliant, resolutely loving rather than sadly helpless when beset by monstrous male authority. The success of The Phantom Carriage brought the director an invitation to America, where as a revenant from his own childhood, he made two films with Lillian Gish, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and the masterpiece The Wind (1928). Her face was unnervingly similar to that of The Phantom Carriage’s Hilda Borgström. As Norma Desmond, ghost of silent cinema in Sunset Boulevard (1950), proclaims, “We didn’t need voices. We had faces then.”
In America, where Sjöström’s name had been changed to Seastrom, he made an extraordinary film, He Who Gets Slapped (1924), adapted from Leonid Andreyev’s play, in which Lon Chaney’s scientist, having lost his wife and his original research to another man, becomes in his humiliation a circus clown. Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, who defined horror as “a clown at midnight,” was an expressionist metamorphosis of David Holm. Despite the success of Sjöström’s American films, however, he returned to Sweden in 1930, at the dawn of the sound era, to work in the theater, feeling perhaps that this was where speech belonged.
His influence remained. David Holm is possessed by drink as a vampire is by blood. Murnau’s spectral Nosferatu (1922) owed something to this film. David renouncing his alcoholism at the stroke of midnight is surely as impossible as Dracula swearing off blood. But Sjöström, the humanist, could not resist.
The Phantom Carriage is at root a Faustian tale, with drink as the devil. If the film were the work of a Jansenist Catholic like Robert Bresson, David’s suffering would be a struggle with God’s design for him, alcohol being the mysterious presence of the divine in his bloodstream, and would probably end in suicide. But for Sjöström, God helps those who help themselves. There is an extraordinary moment when David’s wife faints out of fear at his ax attack and he fetches her a cup of water, only to berate her violently when she recovers consciousness. Here is a glimpse not of God but of a good man within a bad man. Sjöström the actor marvelously conveys the brutish, the melancholy, the sarcastic, and the reflective aspects of his character. The Shining treats Jack as a man with the aggressive need to humiliate others. He is all demon, and the film is essentially a spectacle. Sjöström’s David is a study of tortured self-humiliation, like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov. The original draft of Crime and Punishment was entitled “The Drunkards.”
When The Phantom Carriage opened at the Criterion Theater in New York, it was lauded for being precisely what it was not: a cautionary tale of the evils of drink. The distributor had completely reedited it as The Stroke of Midnight. The legend of the Phantom Carriage didn’t come in until almost halfway. Sjöström’s structure had been dismantled, and the film became a straightforward narrative. As such, it works well—as a Hollywood film with a quasi-religious score performed on a cinema Wurlitzer.
Julien Duvivier remade The Phantom Carriage in 1939 as La charrette fantôme, with Pierre Fresnay as David and Louis Jouvet as Georges, an interesting expansion of their relationship. It was reborn again as Arne Mattsson’s Körkarlen in 1958, and in Bergman’s TV film on the making of the original, The Image Makers (2000), based on the Per Olov Enquist play. The subject came back unheralded in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a gloomy film noir subversively reimagined as a feel-good Christmas story.
The special handmade visual beauty of The Phantom Carriage has never been equaled. When Georges drives to a rocky seashore to pick up a woman who has drowned after a wreck, the coach glides through the crashing waves. When he goes down into the sea to get her, the effect of the ghostly figure under the swirling water is delirious, a hallucination of drunkenness. The film itself is drunk. The carriage is an emblem for cinema as a phantom form capable of the documentary (Lumière) and the imaginary (Méliès) at the same time. Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus (1950) was probably influenced by Sjöström and Murnau in its use of negative printing to evoke the spectral in the real—or vice versa. Cocteau had a word for it: l’irréel.
The influence of Sjöström on his friend Carl Dreyer in the spectral Vampyr (1932) is often cited. But Dreyer’s film is about unseen fear. It is not dark but powdery white. He does not rely on double exposure for the supernatural but, subverting Soviet montage, implies missing pieces to evoke the absent menace.
The Phantom Carriage, the most experimental of Swedish films, reaches for inward realism. In Search of Lost Time was concurrent with the early development of film. Proust’s creation of memory as a literary form is parallel with the experiments in film as a dream form. Proust’s “printing” of recovered memory is a photographic process. Film is in fact a sequence of still photographs, frozen images, “dead” pictures brought back to life on the screen. With The Phantom Carriage, we may properly ask, are the dead more alive than the living?
Paul Mayersberg started as a film critic, worked as an assistant to Jean-Pierre Melville, Joseph Losey, and Roger Corman, and became the screenwriter of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Eureka, and Croupier. He is the author of Hollywood: The Haunted House and a novel, Homme Fatale.