As legend has it, Ingmar Bergman loved The Phantom Carriage so much that he saw the film at least once a year. The film certainly had an influence on the legendary director, something which is almost immediately obvious on a couple of different fronts. The shadowy dark figure of death evokes similarities with Bergman’s Death in The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries star Victor Sjöström is the writer/director/star here.
It’s also easy to see why The Phantom Carriage left such a mark on Bergman. It is a haunting, heartbreaking film that is bound to stick with any viewer. On top of that, it is also a remarkable achievement in filmmaking from a purely technical level.
On the surface, The Phantom Carriage looks to be a sort of ghost story: the last person to die every New Year’s Eve is bound to drive death’s carriage for the next year, picking up every soul that dies along the way. Very early on, it becomes apparent that alcoholic David Holm (played by Sjöström) is going to be the unlucky man who will drive the carriage for the coming year.
The carriage, along with the ghostly images of death that accompany it are incredibly unsettling. The technical ways in which this is achieved are quite remarkable. Anyone who has seen Sherlock Jr. will remember the scene where a ghostly image of Buster Keaton steps out of his own body. Through double exposure, The Phantom Carriage takes that to a whole different level, with multiple ghostly images moving in front of, behind and through solid objects.
None of those images are even the most unsettling portions of the film. The ghostly tale is simply a catalyst for an exploration of David Holm’s horrific life. His life choices have caused a negative effect on a number of people, namely his wife, children and a Salvation Army nurse determined to help him. The trail of misery he has left behind him is examined in excruciating and awful detail, creating a constant unsettling air around the film’s events.
All of this is told seamlessly through flashbacks and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks. In a film where time is seemingly important, Sjöström is constantly throwing it on it’s ear, violently whipping back and forth between past, present and fantasy.
Ultimately a human story despite the ghostly underpinnings, the film is helped immensely by moving and realistic performances all around. Sjöström is utterly despicable in his leading role, in complete contrast to his helpful nurse, the almost angelic Astrid Holm. Hilda Borgström portrays Sjöström’s wife, in a performance that is often uncomfortable to watch.
Overall, The Phantom Carriage is simply a film that must be experienced to understand it’s full impact. It is dark, gripping and unsettling not just in the portrayal of death, but in the portrayal of life. There is never a comfortable or safe moment, as Sjöström is constantly subverting the viewer’s expectations, sending them plunging further into despair and uncomfortable territory.
Like Bergman, you’ll probably walk away from The Phantom Carriage having been greatly impacted by it. This is not a film that is easy to shake off or forget about. In fact, it may feel like the phantom’s carriage is dragging behind you.