January 16, 2008
In the early days of film-making, cinema of Sweden rose to prominence thanks to the works of two pioneers of the silent film industry: Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, both highly influential directors and technically, the fathers of Swedish cinema. Of the two, Sjöström is probably the better remembered nowadays, as he also made a career as an actor, giving a powerful final performance at age 78 in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 masterpiece, "Smultronstället" ("Wild Strawberries"). But this wouldn't be the only link between the two Swedish masters, as in fact, Sjöström's influence over Bergman's work can be found in many of Bergman's movies. This film, 1921's "Körkarlen" (known in English as "The Phantom Carriage"), is no exception, as this dark drama would prove to be highly influential to many of Bergman's masterpieces, including "Det Sjunde Inseglet" ("The Seventh Seal").
"Körkarlen" is the story of David Holm, a completely irresponsible drunkard who has spent his life living only to drink. On New Year's Eve, Holm is as usual, drinking with his friends, and it is during their celebration that one of them tells an old legend: that the last person to die in the year, if he or she has been a big sinner, will become the driver of the Phantom Carriage, the legendary chariot in which Death picks up the souls of the dead. In a twist of fate, Holm ends up being killed after a violent discussion right at the last minute of the year, and since he has spent his life inflicting pain to his friends and family, the Phantom Carriage will come for him. This ghastly revelation will make Holm to remember his life, which was always filled with wrath, hate and perversion, in order to find a way to escape his fate and save his soul.
Based on the 1912 novel of the same name by Selma Lagerlöf, the screenplay was written by Sjöström himself, making "Körkarlen" the fourth movie he adapted from a story by Lagerlöf. What's interesting about "Körkarlen" is that Sjöström develops the plot using a series of flashbacks in a style that wasn't very common in those days, moving back and forth from present to past, as the complex personality of David Holm unfolds and the reasons behind his damnation are revealed. Sjöström's innovative narrative structure in "Körkarlen" is complex, but not difficult to follow, and works perfectly with the plot's mix of dark fantasy and harsh realism. Having not read it, I'm not sure how faithful is this to Lagerlöf's novel, but the mixture of the fantastic elements with the hopeless realism of Holm's corruption is one of the most attractive and successful elements in the film.
Probably the scenes that most capture the attention at first sight in "The Phantom Carriage" are the ones with the Carriage itself, as director Victor Sjöström and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon create several haunting special effects using trick photography with a care and a style rarely seen in these kind of effects. However, there's more in "Körkarlen" than ghastly special effects, as Sjöström gives an excellent use to Jaenzon's photography to create a dark, melancholic atmosphere of despair using light and shadows in a subtle way. This is best appreciated when watching the film in its tinted version, although even in simple black and white the results are amazing. Now, Sjöström really knew how to bring the best out of his cast (he started as an actor, so that may be the reason), and this movie is no exception, as the acting is one of the strongest points in "Körkarlen".
It could be said that "Körkarlen" is all about Victor Sjöström, as he not only directs it, he also plays David Holm himself and is quite remarkable at doing it. As the incorrigible drunkard on the path to damnation, Sjöström delivers a very powerful performance and is often quite realistic in the drunk insanity of his character. One could think that Sjöström overshadows the rest of the cast, but Astrid Holm, who plays Sister Edit, is equally as good. Her character is essentially the David Holm's counterpart, and the person who tries to save his soul. As Holm's wife, Hilda Borgström offers a performance filled with many powerfully emotional scenes, and she is quite effective at them, although her character has considerably less screen time than Sjöström and Astrid Holm. Finally, Tore Svennberg is indeed very creepy as the Carriage's current driver.
"Körkarlen" is a movie filled with a very haunting beauty of almost supernatural origin. The way this drama mixes the horrors of the supernatural world with those of the real world (which seem more horrific) makes it a powerful movie even today, and Sjöström's style still feels quite fresh and modern, considering that the film is more than 80 years old. If there is a flaw in this near perfect masterpiece, I would say that it's its tendency to be excessively preachy towards the end. Sjöström was prone to make his movies with severe moralistic undertones, and in "Körkarlen" this is glaringly obvious. I won't go as far as some critics who call it "a Salvation Army propaganda film", but I must say that it's noticeable, although not really annoying. Nevertheless, "Körkarlen"'s beauty transcends this apparent lack of subtlety and like Wilder's "The Lost Weekend", is a powerful tale about the demons of alcohol.
One could say that "Körkarlen" makes the perfect companion piece to Bergman's two legendary masterpieces of the 50s, as not only it is it's artistic predecessor, it shares the fascination with death and what comes after it. With its very poetic images and the notably inventive way its narrative is built, "Körkarlen" is in my opinion, one of the most beautiful films of the silent era. One final thing, Bergman's intimate relationship with this film can also be noted in one of his last films, "Bildmakarna", a film about the making of "Körkarlen". A highly influential masterpiece indeed.