Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Phantom Carriage

Based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Selma Lagerlof, Korkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) is the story of Death collecting souls as one of them is a troubled alcoholic and a nurse where the latter believes in redemption. Written for the screen, directed, and starring Victor Sjostrom, the film is a look into a man facing death as well as dealing with the awful things he created in his life. Also starring Hilda Borgstrom, Astrid Holm, and Tore Svennberg. Korkarlen is a dazzling yet harrowing film about death and redemption from Victor Sjostrom.

Set on one night on New Year’s Eve just hours before the New Year is to arrive, the film is about this very cruel alcoholic who finds himself meeting Death as he is forced to look at awful deeds he has done to his family. Even as he also has to deal with sympathetic nurse who tries to see the good in him as she is dying from the disease that he gave her as she is calling for him. It’s a film that explores the idea of death as well as redemption through the eyes of an abusive alcoholic whose refusal to be good or even see this dying nurse has him facing something that he might not be able to escape. Even as this nurse was someone who had been good to him by fixing his coat or to even have him reunite with his family but he always finds a way to make things worse through his own cruelty.

The film’s screenplay is separated into four parts as Victor Sjostrom uses that structure to play out the evolution of the character he plays in David Holm. A man who once had a good family live only to meet up with a bunch of hard-hitting drinkers including a man named Georges (Tore Svennberg) who would have him become an alcoholic. Much of the story is told in flashbacks where the narrative moves back and forth to David’s journey with Death who comes in the form of Georges who did die on New Year’s Eve as well as the story of the dying nurse Edit (Astrid Holm). Much of the first act explore David’s family life and his downfall while the second half is about how he met Edit exactly one year ago when he was drunk and needed a place to sleep. Edit’s act of kindness and the belief that there’s good in people would come at a terrible price though she still believes there is still good in David as Georges would force David to confront these sins as well as what Edit tried to do.

Sjostrom’s direction is quite entrancing in the way he presents the film in this grainy film stock with some monochrome coloring. Many of the compositions are quite straightforward in the way Sjostrom frames the actors in a scene or to play out some form of drama. What makes the film so enchanting is the way he presents the sequence about the story of Death as it’s told by David who is talking about a story Georges told him on the night he died. The images where it features people who die on New Year’s Eve are then collected by Death who appears in a very transparent carriage as if he’s from another world. It’s these visual effects that Sjostrom presents that adds this very ethereal quality to the film that also includes shots of David talking to Georges as Death while David’s body is lying beside him.

All of which would play into David’s fate as he is set to replace Georges in the role of Death where he has to play that role for an entire year. That sense of drama as well as suspense into some of the action that David did including an intense flashback scene of how he terrorized his wife (Hilda Borgstrom) becomes crucial to what his fate might be. Yet, there’s the character of Edit who also plays a role of David’s fate as she is lying on her deathbed who does plea to Death about giving him one more chance. Even as its climax would have David realize the fate he would play and thinking about those he had hurt. Overall, Sjostrom creates a truly exhilarating yet mesmerizing film about death and redemption.

Cinematographer Julius Jaenzon does fantastic work with the film‘s photography as it has this air of grain while using colored filters to play out some of the entrancing images of the film. Art directors Alexander Bako and Axel Esbensen do amazing work with the set pieces from the bars that David goes to as well as the design of the phantom carriage. The film’s music by Matti Bye (from its 1998 restoration) is brilliant for its brooding yet intoxicating score that features some playful themes but also some ominous orchestral cuts to play out the drama and suspense of the film.

The film’s cast includes some notable small performances from Tor Weijden as a friend of Edit’s in Gustafsson who tries to find David, Lisa Lundholm as Edit’s fellow nurse Maria, Concordia Selander as Edit’s mother, Einar Axelsson as David’s brother in a flashback sequence, and Hilda Borgstrom in a wonderful performance as David’s tormented wife Anna. Tore Svennberg is great as Georges as a man who is the life of the party until he takes on the role of Death where he reveals the fate that David would play. Astrid Holm is radiant as Edit as this very kindly nurse whose act of good deeds has her dealing with David’s cruelty no matter how harsh he can be as Holm just adds that nice balance of goodness to her role. Finally, there’s Victor Sjostrom in an incredible performance as David Holm as Sjostrom brings a raucous charm to his role as a cruel drunk that is balanced by his fierce presence as well as the way he responds to the ills that he created as it’s a very intense yet powerful performance from Sjostrom.

Korkarlen is an outstanding film from Victor Sjostrom that explores the world of death and redemption. The film isn’t just one of the great silent films of the era but also a very entrancing film that explores the world of death and how a man deals with cruelty of his deeds. Even as he also finds an idea of redemption through the grace of a kind nurse. In the end, Korkarlen is a magnificent film from Victor Sjostrom.

© thevoid99 2013


Chris said...

I enjoyed it, but it took me a second viewing of several scenes, and a look at Wikipedia, to better understand the narrative, which I found a bit difficult to follow(maybe because it is a silent film)
Agree that it deserves respect for the special effects, which are amazing for a movie of its time.

thevoid99 said...

I want to see it again and maybe get the Criterion DVD. It's truly a work of art. It took me some time to follow along but I was engrossed in what was happening. The special effects are amazing and I still think is better than most visual effects today.