In this 1921 silent film from Sweden, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) is dying on New Year’s Eve. She has tuberculosis, an illness that was once as common and as feared as COVID is today. Knowing that she doesn’t have long to live and that she probably won’t even make it through the night, she makes one last request. She wants to talk to David Holm (played by the film’s director Victor Sjostrom).
This request shocks everyone because David Holm is known for being a petty criminal and a notorious drunkard. As if to the prove their point, David is spending New Year’s Eve in a cemetery, getting drunk with two friends of his. He tells his friends about a legend that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is cursed to spend the next year driving death’s carriage and collecting souls. David is obsessed with this legend because, last year, his best friend Georges died right before the clock turned twelve.
Believe it or not, David is actually right. Georges (Tore Svennberg) is currently steering his phantom carriage through the streets of the city, stopping to collect the souls of the recently departed. It’s not a job that Georges wants but it’s one that he’s destined to do until the end of the night. Once a new year begins, someone will take Georges’s place.
When a fight breaks out at the cemetery, David is struck over the head with a bottle, just as the clock strikes midnight. Georges promptly appears. It looks like David has a new job but, before he can get started, he has to deal with both Sister Edit’s request and his guilt over the collapse of his marriage to the tragic Anna (Hilda Borgström). Anna is now near death herself, struck down by the same disease that is killing Sister Edit, a disease that was quite possibly given to both of them by David himself. (It’s easy to imagine someone making a modern version of this film, with COVID replacing the consumption.)
When one hears that The Phantom Carriage is a Swedish film about death, one can probably be excused from thinking, “Aren’t all of them?” And it is true that Ingmar Bergman regularly cited The Phantom Carriage as being a huge influence on his own films, especially The Seventh Seal. And yet, to say that either The Phantom Carriage or The Seventh Seal are solely about death is to do a disservice to both films. The Phantom Carriage is about many things; love, guilt, regret, addiction, destiny, and the promise of redemption. In the end, it’s a film about life. After he’s struck on the head, David reflects on the life that led him to that moment and, finally, he sees how his life not only effected the lives of so many others but how their lives effected his own. It’s only after he’s hit on the head with that bottle and he rides the phantom carriage that he understands what the life he had was truly about.
Of course, for most people, the main appeal of the film will be viewing the ghostly carriage as it moves, unseen by the living, through the streets of the city. The film’s supernatural effects were captured through the use of double exposures, which may sound simple today but which was a very new technique way back in 1921. The images of the transparent ghosts and the carriage making is way through the living remain haunting. There’s a real sense of melancholy that runs through this film, an atmosphere of loss and regret that, a hundred years later, is still effective. It’s a film that plays out like a dream of life and death, light and darkness.
For a film that was released in the early (some would say primitive) years of narrative cinema, The Phantom Carriage holds up remarkably well. Though the film has its overly sentimental and melodramatic moments (it is, after all, a silent movie), the sight of that carriage continues to be hauntingly sad and beautiful.