Silent Sunday: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

New Year’s Day viewing of an appropriate sort; it came out 91 years ago today, it’s all about the new year, and it’s fucking grim, much like my NYE “celebrations” were. I actually have the old Redemption VHS of this (found in Lawson’s about 15 years ago), though obviously the Criterion disc blows it rather out of the water for a number of reasons. Though I do recall liking it, I don’t think I’ve watched it since then, and was a bit surprised to realise how much of it I’d forgotten. The broad outline I recalled, yes, but not so much the details or structure. I watched it this time while listening to Caspar Tybjerg’s commentary, and thereby learned a number of interesting things, such as the fact that the story’s central supernatural theme—the last person to die at midnight on New Year’s Eve must drive Death’s carriage collecting the souls of the dead for the next year until they’re replaced on the next NYE—is based on an actual Breton legend, and some of the details of the film’s celebrated technical achievements with multiple superimpositions to represent the supernatural. Even without knowing all the specific details cited in Peter Cowie’s DVD video essay, it’s easy to see how Ingmar Bergman (who apparently saw it over a hundred times) was influenced by this film, it could almost have been one of his. As I said, I only really recalled the broad outline of things, so I’d kind of forgotten how heavy the moralising is (at heart it’s a sort of temperance tract) and how ferociously unpleasant the lead character David Holm is (Tybjerg draws an interesting parallel with Battling Burrows from Broken Blossoms). As such, the film amounts to a doubly fine performance from Victor Sjöström as both star and director, not only having to embody this unlikeable character but also to make his redemption credible and this rather heavy-going drama compelling. Not the gentlest film I could’ve watched today, but glad to have seen it again.

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