Monday, October 10, 2011

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) 1921 **

Ever wonder where Ingmar Bergman got some of his ideas for The Seventh Seal? Look no further than this classic 1921 Swedish silent by Victor Sjostrom. Yes, the same Sjostrom who starred in the 1957 Bergman classic, Wild Strawberries, is the star and director of The Phantom Carriage (aka Korkarlen).

The opening of the story takes place on New Year's Eve at the deathbed of a Salvation Army sister who wants to see David Holm (played by Sjostrom) before she dies. The problem is David is out on a drunk--his usual state of being. Through a series of flashbacks we learn how the dying woman became ill--she contracted consumption from mending David's ratty coat after he passed out at her station the previous New Year's Eve. To make a long story short, David is found and told that the sister wants to see him. Being his usual SOB self, he refuses to go and proceeds to get into a fight with some men who crack him over the head with a bottle, seemingly killing him. This is where the phantom carriage comes into play.

Every year at the stroke of midnight a person condemned to hell dies and is given the duty of driving the carriage around collecting others like themselves for the rest of the year. The driver of David's carriage happens to be Georges, an old friend of his. In one of the most spectacular images captured in early film, you have David Holm's spirit rise from his body only to look down at his own corpse lying on the ground. phantom_carriage David's first task as carriage driver (after visiting the sister) is to collect his wife and children who have perished by self-inflicted poisoning. In an unusual twist, Georges gives David a second chance to put things right. So after reawakening at midnight in his own human form, David races home to prevent his family's death. Unlike Bergman's Death, this one does grant reprieves.

While I don't like the ending (David deserved his cursed fate), the film is still a classic. The translucent shots are awesome for the time. The flashbacks within flashbacks make the story complex and compelling. And, quite simply, the phantom carriage itself is really creepy. A must see--but difficult to find.


  1. ..The first time I've found anyone who has even heard of this, never mind seen it.
    It was released on DVD in the uk (R2) last year, and I got it.. and am I glad I did.
    The photography is superb, the mood..well, moody..and it had me gripped. Strongly recomended. (I have been told by another '1001 collector blog' that it is not available in the US)

  2. Here in the U.S. TCM shows this film from time to time--that's how I saw it. They might show it on their European channels.

  3. Got to say... I agree that the film is amazing looking and the effects were pretty nifty for the time. But I reviewed this a couple of months ago, and my ultimate conclusion is that I don't quite... get it. It's a classic, for sure, because consensus makes it so, but narratively and film-craft wise, I thought it was pretty much par for the course for the era. I would say anyone interested in silent films, or in Bergman, should see it. But if you're trying to convert someone to the beauty of silent films, I would choose something else.

  4. PCF: it's a strange silent film and I think that's what is attractive to some. I find the story pretty absorbing, even if I don't like the ending.

  5. I have not seen this one, Kim, and it sounds awfully good to me. I love to see the infancy of special effects, and it is amazing to see what filmmakers were able to do so early on in the technology. Plus, the story is right up my alley. I love stories of the afterlife, what happens after, all of it. Your description has me intrigued, and I plan to catch this one whenever I can find it.

    Oh, and I really like your October colors! Really pretty!

  6. Becky, they show this on TCM from time to time. Glad you like the October design.