Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Cinematic Masterpiece

Victor Sjöström gained international acclaim for his portrayal of Professor Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s renowned film Wild Strawberries. His fame goes beyond the unforgettable image of old age, revealing the legacy of a younger man who was not only a distinguished actor but also the leading Swedish film director before Bergman. One of Sjöström’s cinematic masterpieces is The Phantom Carriage, adapted from Selma Lagerlöf’s Nobel Prize-winning novel Körkarlen. This film exemplifies Sjöström’s directorial brilliance, with the title Körkarlen translating to “the driver” or “the coachman,” encapsulating the central theme of the narrative.

In the realm of American silent cinema, diversity flourished through the exploration of genres like comedy, melodrama, and adventure. Conversely, Swedish cinema crafted a unique niche, constructing a captivating narrative primarily based on national folktales and sagas. This focused approach granted Swedish cinema an unparalleled identity, presenting audiences with an unprecedented experience. Leading the charge in this cinematic revolution was Victor Sjöström, whose creative genius and storytelling prowess shone in films such as A Man There Was, The Outlaw and His Wife, and The Sons of Ingmar. Through these works, Sjöström solidified his status as a master filmmaker, earning a reputation as grand and influential as D. W. Griffith, though with a more localized impact rather than global acclaim.

The film’s evocative storyline takes place on a poignant New Year’s Eve, with Astrid Holm portraying Edit, a Salvation Army sister grappling with tuberculosis. In a frail state, she desperately calls for David Holm before succumbing to her ailment. As the clock ticks toward midnight, the stage is set for a haunting tale that blurs the lines between life and death. Sjöström’s portrayal of David Holm, a central figure ensnared by alcoholism and violence, unfolds within a gathering of downtrodden companions in a cemetery. David’s refusal to heed Edit’s final plea initiates a fateful chain of events, with the atmosphere thickening as midnight approaches, foreshadowing an ominous turn in the narrative.

In a dramatic twist, David becomes involved in a tumultuous brawl, a chaotic precursor to his untimely demise at midnight. As the spectral hour nears, a ghostly carriage materializes through double exposure, with a phantom hooded coachman named Georges. This supernatural entity serves as the harbinger of a macabre fate, tasked with transporting David’s departing soul to the afterlife. Following his demise, David embarks on a riveting journey through the annals of his own life, where the contours of his mind blend seamlessly with the unfolding narrative. This introspective exploration is portrayed through a complex tapestry of flashbacks, revealing the layers of a man’s existence marked by moral decay and personal transgressions.

Collaborative Vision

The intricate sequence of flashbacks peels away the layers of David’s troubled history, exposing him as a rogue who inflicted emotional wounds on those closest to him. His wife, children, and younger brother all suffered from David’s unrestrained vices and violent tendencies. Even Edit, the Salvation Army sister aiming to rescue him from addiction, became a target of his mistreatment. Selma Lagerlöf, a Swedish fiction luminary drawing inspiration from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, played a crucial role in shaping the unfolding narrative on the cinematic canvas. Victor Sjöström, himself a luminary in filmmaking, took on the task of bringing Lagerlöf’s vision to life, directing four adaptations of her novels. Collaborating with visionary director Mauritz Stiller, who discovered Greta Gustafsson, later transformed into the iconic Garbo in The Saga of Gösta Berling, they ushered in the golden age of Swedish cinema.

The collaboration between Victor Sjöström and Selma Lagerlöf for The Phantom Carriage adaptation faced creative tensions, primarily centered around stylistic choices. Lagerlöf favored an authentic portrayal on location in Landskrona, while Sjöström, with his visionary approach, chose a studio production at Filmstaden in Råsunda. It marked a bold departure and a groundbreaking experiment in controlled conditions. Teaming up with cinematographer Julius Jaenzon and laboratory artist Éugen Hellman, Sjöström aimed to create a visually striking masterpiece. Superimpositions layered up to four times allowed ghostly apparitions to traverse carefully crafted sets seamlessly. These spectral entities seemed to move within scenes, occasionally vanishing behind other characters and solid foreground objects, creating an otherworldly and ethereal atmosphere. The cinematography demonstrated meticulous craftsmanship, employing hand-moved cameras that meticulously followed each character, enhancing the film’s immersive quality. Unique lighting techniques, including the use of filters, were utilized to give the ghosts a distinctive reality within the narrative. The cumulative result of these innovations produced a seemingly three-dimensional image, showcasing Sjöström’s dedication to pushing the boundaries of cinematic expression.

Before 1920, the cinematic landscape needed a distinct historical narrative. However, visionary filmmakers worldwide emerged, influencing the course of cinematic history. In Germany, luminaries like Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst, often hailed as film noir pioneers, continued a tradition blending theatricality with painterly expressionism. Their cinematic body of work served as a testament to the potent visual language achievable within the silver screen. In France, Louis Feuillade pioneered a unique cinematic genre, earning him the title “the father of comic-book cinema.” Through serialized works, he brought fantastical, costumed characters into the tangible streets of Paris, creating a dynamic fusion of reality and imagination that captivated audiences.

In Italy, Giovanni Pastrone forever transformed the cinematic landscape, recognized as the father of the epic. Pastrone’s visionary approach led him to explore historical realms, transporting audiences to the grandeur of the Roman Empire. His commitment to crafting expansive narratives on a grand scale left an enduring impact on the Italian cinematic tradition. Despite his theatrical background, Victor Sjöström deliberately departed from traditional stage acting when entering the realm of cinema. Recognizing the specific demands of filmmaking, he rejected conventional stage techniques, considering them potentially detrimental to the emerging art of cinema, especially in an era when spoken words were often absent in films.

Embracing Silence

In Sjöström’s cinematic perspective, the absence of audible dialogue was not a limitation but an opportunity. He strategically prioritized visual storytelling, highlighting facial expressions, body movements, and gestures as the primary conveyors of emotion and narrative depth. This intentional deviation from traditional theatrical norms represented a significant transformation in the evolution of cinematic performance. An excellent example of Sjöström’s innovative approach is evident in his performance in The Phantom Carriage. Here, he adeptly avoided melodrama, opting for a portrayal that delved into the internal struggles of his character, David. Sjöström’s nuanced performance moved beyond simplistic emotional arcs, revealing David’s inner turmoil, which seamlessly erupted into moments of intense violence. This outward realism served as a means to explore and reveal the complexities of inner states, elevating the cinematic experience to a deeper level.

Notably, in The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström employed inventive intertitles that went beyond mere text. Some intertitles functioned as voice-overs, allowing viewers to eavesdrop on the character’s internal dialogue as he conversed with himself. This inventive method emphasized Sjöström’s dedication to pushing the limits of cinematic narrative, surpassing the limitations of silent films to provide direct insight into the character’s psyche. The climactic moment in The Phantom Carriage, where David forcefully wields an ax to breach a locked door in a desperate attempt to reach his terrified wife and children, serves as a notable precursor to a cinematic scene that unfolded decades later. This intense sequence, filled with poignancy, foreshadows the frenzied attack carried out by Jack Nicholson’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In both instances, the symbolic use of an ax as an instrument of violence creates a visceral impact, capturing the essence of unchecked psychological turmoil.

Interestingly, a parallel scene occurs in D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, a film created a year before The Phantom Carriage. Whether Sjöström had direct exposure to Griffith’s work remains uncertain, adding a fascinating layer of cinematic connection. The thematic resonance across these scenes emphasizes the universality of human struggles as artists from different eras and backgrounds grapple with similar narrative motifs. Stanley Kubrick’s reimagining of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining is noteworthy. Kubrick deviates from Stephen King’s original portrayal, minimizing the progressive alcoholism that characterized the character in favor of a more overt manifestation of schizophrenia. Kubrick deliberately avoids explaining the origins of Jack’s descent into madness, opting for intentional ambiguity to heighten the psychological horror. This departure from the source material showcases Kubrick’s adeptness at infusing his vision into the narrative.

Loss and Family Dynamics

In contrast, Victor Sjöström in The Phantom Carriage subtly hints at potential social causes behind David’s unraveling psyche, with poverty and unemployment casting shadows on his character. However, Sjöström astutely leaves the ultimate truth about David’s torment open-ended, allowing viewers to speculate on the multifaceted factors influencing his descent into darkness. This nuanced approach adds layers to the narrative, prompting contemplation on the complexities of the human condition. In 1881, Victor Sjöström embarked on a transformative journey to America with his father, Olaf, and beloved mother, Maria Elizabeth, when he was just a small child. Tragically, the foundation of young Victor’s world crumbled when his devoted mother succumbed to fate, leaving him bereft at the tender age of seven. Following this heartbreaking loss, his father, Olaf, sought solace in the arms of the family nursemaid, a decision that proved challenging for young Victor, already burdened by grief. Olaf’s choice for a new wife, two decades his junior, further strained the father-son relationship.

Olaf Sjöström, a complex figure, was marked by womanizing tendencies, financial instability leading to two bankruptcies, and a conversion to born-again Christianity. This tumultuous family dynamic led young Victor to relocate to Sweden in 1893 under the care of his aunt. During this period, Victor refined his linguistic skills, becoming fluent in English, a proficiency that would later prove invaluable during his return to America in the twenties. Throughout his life, Victor Sjöström grappled with an unrelenting fear—the dread of resembling his father, not just in physical appearance but also in the shadow of his father’s womanizing and financial struggles. This fear drove Sjöström to lead a frugal existence, and even in times of success, he harbored a deep-seated terror of financial instability.

The Phantom Carriage intricately constructs a narrative that goes beyond the conventional realms of Swedish Lutheranism, echoing the eerie tones of Ingmar Bergman’s exploration of the supernatural in films like Hour of the Wolf rather than closely aligning with the religious crises depicted in Winter Light. The film adeptly navigates the intersections of earthly struggles and otherworldly intervention, forging a unique path that both intrigues and mystifies. Differing from conventional religious narratives, David’s sudden conversion in the film’s conclusion prompts contemplation of faith and divine intervention. The transformation lacks the expected coherence seen in typical spiritual awakenings; instead, it unfolds as a final, desperate attempt for redemption, driven by the haunting specter of his imminent demise. David’s return from the afterlife grants him a last chance to prevent a tragedy: the self-inflicted demise of his wife and children, driven to despair.

Interestingly, the intervention that disrupts the tragic events does not come from the divine hand of God the Father, as one might anticipate. Instead, it is the ethereal presence of the deceased coachman Georges, David’s spectral predecessor, who unexpectedly becomes the agent of salvation. Georges is moved by the unwavering love of David’s wife and the relentless devotion of Edit, the Salvation Army sister who had tirelessly fought to rescue the tormented man from addiction. Victor Sjöström’s depiction of women in his films departs from conventional cinematic archetypes, portraying female characters as independently minded and resolutely loving rather than resignedly helpless in the face of imposing male authority. In contrast to prevailing tropes, Sjöström’s women emerge as strong-willed individuals who defy societal expectations, offering a nuanced and empowering representation on the screen.

Continuity of Faces

The success of The Phantom Carriage propelled Sjöström into the international spotlight, leading to an invitation to venture across the Atlantic to America. In this transatlantic journey, he collaborated with the iconic Lillian Gish, like a revenant from his childhood, to create two cinematic gems: The Scarlet Letter and the masterful The Wind. Particularly in the latter, Gish’s countenance eerily resembled that of Hilda Borgström from The Phantom Carriage, creating a haunting continuity of faces across Sjöström’s cinematic body of work. In the iconic character Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, the looming presence of silent cinema is encapsulated in her declaration, “We did not need voices. We had faces then.” This sentiment aligns with Sjöström’s filmmaking approach, where the expressive power of the human face, particularly in collaborations with actresses like Gish, transcends the necessity for spoken words. The silent era, characterized by emotive faces and nuanced expressions, serves as evidence of the profound impact visual storytelling can wield.

In the American film landscape, Victor Sjöström transformed, adopting the name Seastrom. During this period, he created a cinematic masterpiece with He Who Gets Slapped, an extraordinary film adapted from Leonid Andreyev’s play. The narrative revolves around Lon Chaney’s character, a scientist who, having lost both his wife and original research to another man, undergoes a staggering transformation into a circus clown as an expression of his profound humiliation. Chaney, renowned as the Man of a Thousand Faces and a maestro in defining horror as “a clown at midnight,” delivered a performance that mirrored David Holm’s complex character through an expressionist metamorphosis. Despite the success of Sjöström’s American endeavors, notably the critically acclaimed He Who Gets Slapped, he made the poignant choice to return to Sweden in 1930. This return coincided with the advent of the sound era, a pivotal moment in cinematic history marked by the integration of synchronized sound and dialogue into films. Interestingly, Sjöström’s decision to return to Sweden and engage in theater work hinted at a profound belief that the realm of speech found its true resonance on the theatrical stage.

The success of Sjöström’s American ventures highlighted his directorial prowess, with the collaboration with Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped showcasing his ability to navigate complex psychological landscapes with visual eloquence. However, Sjöström’s return to Sweden acknowledged the evolving cinematic landscape, where the introduction of sound presented both challenges and opportunities. The theater, with its established tradition of spoken dialogue, seemed to beckon Sjöström as a medium uniquely suited for the expressive power of language. Victor Sjöström’s impact persisted as a pervasive influence in the realm of cinema. In The Phantom Carriage, the character David Holm is portrayed as being consumed by alcoholism with an intensity comparable to a vampire’s insatiable thirst for blood. This thematic connection between David’s affliction and the supernatural essence of a vampire laid the foundation for subsequent cinematic works, notably influencing F. W. Murnau’s spectral masterpiece, Nosferatu. Murnau’s iconic depiction of the vampiric Count Orlok owed much to the eerie atmospheres and thematic richness found in Sjöström’s film, establishing a spectral kinship between the tormented souls of David Holm and Nosferatu.


The narrative takes a profound and seemingly implausible turn when, at the stroke of midnight, David makes the unlikely choice to renounce his deeply ingrained alcoholism. This transformative act, reminiscent of Dracula swearing off blood, challenges the inherent impossibility of such redemption. However, driven by a compelling humanist impulse, Sjöström could not resist infusing his narrative with a glimmer of hope, a testament to his belief in the potential for change and redemption within the human spirit. Fundamentally, The Phantom Carriage encapsulates a Faustian narrative, portraying the insidious force of alcohol personified as the devil tormenting the central character, David Holm. In the hands of a Jansenist Catholic filmmaker like Robert Bresson, David’s suffering might be interpreted as a profound struggle with God’s predetermined plan, with alcohol representing a mysterious divine presence coursing through his bloodstream, possibly leading to a tragic end, perhaps even suicide. However, Sjöström’s worldview diverges, aligning more with the belief that God assists those who take the initiative to help themselves.

An extraordinary moment in the film offers a nuanced glimpse into the complex layers of David’s character. When his wife faints in fear during his ax attack, David paradoxically shows compassion by fetching her a cup of water. However, this respite is abruptly shattered as he violently berates her upon her recovery. This juxtaposition provides profound insight not into God’s presence but into the coexistence of a good man within the turbulent depths of a flawed individual. Sjöström, as both director and actor, masterfully conveys the brutish, melancholic, sarcastic, and reflective facets of David’s character, creating a richly textured portrayal that transcends simplistic moral binaries. Drawing a comparison with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where Jack Torrance is portrayed as a man driven by an aggressive desire to humiliate others, essentially depicted as an all-encompassing demon, the contrast with Sjöström’s David becomes evident. While Jack is a spectacle of malevolence, David emerges as a profound exploration of tortured self-humiliation, reminiscent of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The film delves into the psychological complexities underlying human behavior, offering a deep introspective examination of the internal turmoil and moral reckoning faced by its protagonist.

When The Phantom Carriage debuted at the Criterion Theater in New York, it garnered praise, albeit unexpectedly, for portraying something it was not initially designed for a warning narrative about the perils of alcohol consumption. The distributor radically re-edited the film, creating a new version titled The Stroke of Midnight. In this altered iteration, the legendary Phantom Carriage, a crucial element in Sjöström’s original narrative, did not appear until nearly halfway through the film. Consequently, Sjöström’s meticulously crafted structure was dismantled, and the film transformed into a more conventional, straightforward narrative. In its revised form, The Stroke of Midnight aligned itself with the Hollywood aesthetic, conforming to prevalent storytelling norms of the time. The quasi-religious score, performed on a cinema Wurlitzer, further assimilated the film into the stylistic conventions of Hollywood productions. This adaptation allowed the film to fit more comfortably into the cinematic landscape, aligning itself with the narrative expectations and musical accompaniments characteristic of Hollywood filmmaking during that era.

The Cinematic Journey and Legacy

In 1939, Julien Duvivier took on the challenge of remaking The Phantom Carriage in a French adaptation titled La charrette fantôme. This version featured Pierre Fresnay in the role of David and Louis Jouvet as Georges, introducing an intriguing expansion of their relationship within the narrative. Duvivier’s rendition added a fresh layer to the story, providing audiences with a distinct perspective on the complex dynamics between the characters. The cinematic revival of The Phantom Carriage continued with Arne Mattsson’s interpretation in 1958, appropriately titled Körkarlen. This cinematic rendition explored the timeless themes of the original, offering a contemporary perspective through which to engage with the narrative. The enduring allure of the story is evident in its reincarnations across various decades and cultural contexts.

Ingmar Bergman, a master storyteller in his own right, revisited the subject matter in 2000 with a television film titled The Image Makers. Based on the Per Olov Enquist play, Bergman’s work delved into the behind-the-scenes dynamics of the creation of the original Phantom Carriage. This meta-narrative provided audiences with a unique glimpse into the creative process and the intricate relationships that shaped the cinematic masterpiece. Surprisingly, the thematic essence of The Phantom Carriage resurfaced unexpectedly in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. While Capra’s film is more commonly associated with feel-good Christmas sentiments, it subtly incorporates elements of gloomy film noir. The narrative subversion in It’s a Wonderful Life reimagines a film noir tone within the framework of a heartwarming Christmas story, offering a distinct reinterpretation of the themes explored in Sjöström’s original work.

The distinctive and meticulously crafted visual allure of The Phantom Carriage remains unparalleled. An example of this exceptional visual artistry is observed when Georges steers the carriage to a rugged seashore to retrieve a woman submerged after a shipwreck. The ethereal gliding of the coach through the tumultuous waves and Georges descending into the sea to recover her create a hallucinatory effect akin to the delirium induced by intoxication. The film itself takes on an inebriated quality, with the carriage symbolizing cinema—a phantom medium capable of simultaneously capturing reality and weaving imaginative tales. Jean Cocteau’s cinematic work, Orpheus, likely drew inspiration from Sjöström and Murnau, employing negative printing to evoke the spectral within the tangible or, conversely, to infuse reality into the otherworldly. Cocteau coined a term for this phenomenon: l’irréel. Victor Sjöström’s influence on his close friend Carl Dreyer, particularly in crafting the spectral atmosphere in Vampyr, is widely acknowledged. However, it is crucial to recognize that Dreyer’s cinematic approach differs significantly from Sjöström’s. In Vampyr, the thematic focus revolves around the realm of unseen fear, resulting in a film characterized not by darkness but by an eerie powdery white. Dreyer employs a distinctive visual language, avoiding the conventional use of double exposure for supernatural effects.

The Phantom Carriage, serving as the pinnacle of experimental filmmaking in the Swedish cinematic landscape, explores the realms of inward realism, aiming to capture the essence of subjective experience. Notably, during the early development of film, Marcel Proust was contemporaneously engaged in crafting his magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. This synchronicity in timelines goes beyond mere coincidence; it signifies a parallel between Proust’s groundbreaking exploration of memory as a literary form and the cinematic experiments seeking to embody the ethereal nature of dreams. Proust’s intricate depiction of memory creation bears a remarkable resemblance to the essence of film as a dream form. His literary portrayal of recovered memory can be compared to a photographic process, where the act of “printing” memories mirrors the sequential presentation of still photographs in film. In this conceptual alignment, the film emerges as a captivating sequence of frozen images, seemingly “dead” pictures that are miraculously resurrected on the cinematic screen, breathing life into the narratives they encapsulate.


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