The Phantom Carriage (Korkarlen) 1921

Director: Victor Sjöström
"Its driver is no ordinary man, but serves a harsh master called Death"
Although there's never a good time to be beaten and left for dead in a graveyard by your alcoholic 'friends', it's particularly unfortunate if you suffer such a mishap on New Year's Eve. That's when Death's coachman comes a-calling to take you on a one-way trip to the hereafter ...worse still, he's looking to retire and hand the reins over to you... Presenting Victor Sjöström 's acclaimed saga of Death, deliverance and the demon drink...

New Year's Eve; Sister Edit, a “slum-sister” with the Salvation Army, is dying of consumption. From her deathbed she asks to be reunited with David Holm, a vagabond she had first encountered exactly a year ago. Holm's long-suffering wife is bought to Edit's bedside, but her husband, as ever, is not at home.

Holm is boozing in a graveyard, recounting to his fellow drunkards the story of his friend Georges. Once, Georges had nervously told Holm the legend of Death's coachman -- whoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve is fated to serve death by gathering up dead souls in his carriage. Holm tells them that Georges died on this night a year ago.

Edit's friend Gustafsson finds Holm, but Holm refuses to see her. His friends berate him for his callousness, but flee the scene when a fight breaks out and Holm is knocked cold atop a tombstone. Coming to, he hears a great cacophony: the chimes of midnight herald the approach of Death's carriage, and driving it is his friend Georges. Holm is to take Georges' place, and is compelled to accompany him while his final tasks are carried out.

Georges (Tore Svennberg) calls on his old friend David Holm
Georges accepts that he is paying the price for leading Holm -- and others -- astray. He forces Holm to recall past events that mark his own corrupting influence on those around him: his brother's imprisonment for killing a man in a drunken brawl; his own return from prison, to find that his family have abandoned him; the tireless search to find them and take his revenge that leads him to the hostel run by Sister Edit; his heartless response to her kindness.

They call on Edit. Holm, a chronic consumptive, learns he has fatally spread the disease to her. Edit is unafraid of Death but confesses to being in love with Holm. Edit had reunited Holm and his estranged wife, hoping to redeem him once and for all. Instead, the cycle of brutality had started over, and she asks for one last chance to set him on the path of righteousness. Holm tearfully begs for Edit's forgiveness and she accepts, happily surrendering to Death. But Holm's trials are not over, as Death must pay one more visit before the night is over...

Until Ingmar Bergman usurped his throne, Victor Sjöström was generally considered to be Sweden's finest film film maker, and Körkarlen is often cited as his most accomplished work as director. It was the newly-established Svenska-Filmindustri's first production, receiving worldwide acclaim. Bergman himself was a great admirer and directed the television adaptation of Peret Enqvist's The Image Makers, a dramatisation of the filming of Körkarlen, in 2000.

Its story of a lost soul made to relive past misdeeds has many similarities with Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, and could also be considered a kind of opposite number to It's A Wonderful Life. Instead of the gregarious George Bailey, whose influence makes Bedford Falls a better place, we have David Holm, a wretched drunk whose tubercular cough echoes his diseased spirit in spreading misery and ruin around anyone he comes into contact with.

Holm (Victor  Sjöström ) begs dying Sister Edit
(Astrid Holm) for forgiveness
Saintly Sister Edit tries repeatedly to save David Holm's soul. But we can only assume that she is possessed of some kind of Godly super-sight to see beyond the mean-spirited lowlife visible to the rest of us. Holm is no master criminal with schemes to steal or take over the world; it's unlikely he could stay sober for long enough to accomplish anything. He's not a murderer, though he does inadvertently cause Edit's death when she stays up all night on a freezing New Year's Eve mending his germ-riddled coat, and does admit to coughing in people's faces "in hopes of finishing them off"

Sjöström's Holm is a villain whose pettiness makes him believable. In one scene, Edit and her colleagues are in a bar handing out leaflets for a temperance meeting. She hands one to Holm, who gives it a cursory glance before crumpling it into a ball and flicking it into her face with a smile. In another, his anguished wife begs him not to infect his children and he responds by very deliberately coughing into his handkerchief and tossing it at her. It's not enough that Holm is bitter and cynical; he has to force the rest of the world into proving him right. We get glimpses of a decent man throughout the film, but it takes a brush with Death to bring them to the surface.

And here again is where The Phantom Carriage becomes It's A Wonderful Life's antithesis. There are no kindly angels like Clarence to assure the hero that life is really worth living. There is instead the nightmare black-clad figure with a scythe and a death-coach, whose assurances are just the opposite; everyone comes to me in the end, and everyone is accountable. One of the film's strengths is presenting us with that archetypal, if not cliched, image and refusing to apologise for it. Death is inevitable, it says. And what's more it's right here, in your face, large as life. That these images are filmed so elegantly by Julius Jaenzon using multiple in-camera double-exposures doesn't diminish their effectiveness at all.

Shades of The ShiningSjöström attacks!
Author Lagerlöf would have preferred location filming (in Landskrona, the southern Swedish town she pictured when writing the novel), but Sjöström overruled her, perhaps realising the difficulties in shooting the complex special effects outside of the controlled environment of the studio. Though Sjöström can't take sole credit for the timeless imagery, we know now that Bergman was taking notes when we see his own chess-playing reaper in The Seventh Seal (1957). Other aficionados have noticed a similarity between the scene where Holm axes a door down to terrorize his family and the one in The Shining (1980) where Jack Nicholson does the same, though most agree this is probably coincidence.

When the film was picked up by Metro for release in the USA, they re-cut the film to simplify its complicated flashback structure, presenting the whole story in chronological sequence, deeply undermining Lagerlöf's supernatural premise. Even in a film with an unhurried pace, the scenes featuring the carriage itself were brief and, bunched up at the story's conclusion as they were, made them easy to dismiss as merely the hallucinations of a drunkard. Despite (or because of) this, the film received a lot of praise, though it never made big bucks the studio would have liked.

American critics followed the lead of their limey brethren who had called it "a revelation, beautifully told and beautifully expressed" on its U.K. release in February 1921. The People's critic reportedly went so far as to admit, " is of a kind altogether above the heads of our [British] producers"It did give Sjöström the opportunity to work in Hollywood, where he was put at the helm of MGM's inaugural release, the Lon Chaney circus drama He Who Gets Slapped (1924). More rave reviews followed, for both he and Chaney. Thus was Sjöström's shining reputation set in stone as both actor and director, until his final much-discussed performance in Bergman's Wild Strawberries in 1957.

End Credits:
Victor Sjöström (David Holm), Astrid Holm (Sister Edit), Hilda Borgstrom (Mrs Holm), Tore Svennberg (Georges), Concordia Selander (Edit's Mother), Lisa Lundholm (Sister Maria), Tor Weijden (Gustafsson), Einar Axelsson (David Holm's Brother), Nils Ahrehn (Prison Chaplain), Olof As (Coachman).
Script: Victor Sjöström, Cinematography: Julius Jaenzon, Art Direction: Alexander Bako, Axel Esbensen, Producer: Charles Magnusson, based on the novel 'Korkarlen' by Selma Lagerlof.
(Alternate Titles: The Stroke of Midnight [USA], Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness [UK], The Phantom Chariot)
Sevska-Film, Stockholm
Running time 106 mins.

Spoilt for choice: the Tartan DVD includes Bergman's documentary 'The Image Makers', and the Grapevine Video edition features two edits of the film plus the complete text of the source novel. The Manor's preferred version is the Criterion DVD, which is more complete and of slightly better quality.

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