The Criterion Collection gets high marks in my book because, as part of the company's mission to gather "the greatest films from around the world," they take risks. It would be safe for them to only license well-known titles that have been widely determined as classics in the annals of cinema, like their releases of Chaplin's 'Modern Times,'Fellini's '8 ½,' and Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai.' The team has cast a wide net over the years and introduced me, and no doubt many others, to films that don't even make the local revival theaters or cable-channels.
Such is the case with Victor Sjöström's 'The Phantom Carriage,' an impressive Swedish silent film from 1921 that I first became aware of with this release. I knew Sjöström from his outstanding final acting performance in Ingmar Bergman's 'Wild Strawberries,' but knew nothing of his previous work as a director, which is not entirely my own fault. The classes I've taken and books I've read about film history overlook the early days of the Swedish film industry, focusing mostly on the work of the Americans and German Expressionists. Poor preservation also has an impact on the Swedes fading from the art form's historical record, as some of the work of Sjöström's and his peers are forever lost. Thankfully, 'The Phantom Carriage' did not suffer a similar fate and this release will help draw deserved attention to a talented filmmaker.
Based on Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf's 1912 novel 'Körkarlen,' the film opens on New Year's Eve with the very ill Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) of the Salvation Army dying of consumption. Though she could die at any moment, her only concern is the welfare of David Holm (Victor Sjöström), an alcoholic she had crossed paths with a few times. David is spending the evening with a couple of guys in a cemetery getting drunk. He tells a story passed onto him by his drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg) about how the last soul to die before the end of year goes into service of Death collecting souls in a horse-drawn buggy. With this set-up, it's only natural that David and his friends get into a scuffle that kills David. His spirit sees the ghostly horse-drawn buggy pull up revealing Georges as the current driver of the phantom carriage.
Before Georges passes over the reins, he shows David key instances that led to his current fate and the damaged inflicted on those who cared for him, reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." David had been a happy family man until hanging out with Georges led to his becoming a drunk, which in turn resulted in his going to jail and losing his family. Jumping ahead in time, David sees his first meeting with Sister Edit at the Salvation Army home earlier that year. After spending a warm night indoors, he awakes rude and ungrateful towards Edit, even destroying her sewing work on his clothes. She asks him to return by New Year's Eve to let her know he's all right because she prayed for God to give him a good year, but at the time he laughed it off. Georges shows David more events, bringing him up to New Year's Eve. David can't stand to see what he's done to others, especially his family. He wants to make it right before becoming Death's carriage driver, yet twelve o'clock is almost at hand.
Though a familiar story device, 'The Phantom Carriage' is powerful family drama that doesn't veer into melodrama. Sjöström does a great job performing double duty. He covers a wide range of emotions, from angry, drunken David to a David that fears taking over the hellish task and having to live with his guilt, especially when "each night feels like 100 years," as Georges tells him. Under Sjöström's direction, the film is well shot, including the framing of scenes and the special effects used to create the ghosts, which hold up well for being nearly a century old. Though written at the beginning of the previous century, the story feels modern due to the unfortunate timelessness of the damage alcohol can cause a man and those close to him. There's also an interesting, though briefly touched upon, commentary about faith in God who, as Edit believes, brought David into her life, considering what results from their meeting.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Phantom Carriage' (#579 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is an 18-page booklet containing Paul Mayersberg's essay "Phantom Forms".
The video has been given a 1080i/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.37:1.
The liner notes reveal the extensive restoration work done by "the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute. A new film master was created from two source elements, an incomplete black-and-white nitrate print with Swedish intertitles and an incomplete color-tinted nitrate print with English intertitles. From these source elements, a new black-and-white duplicate negative with Swedish intertitles was completed in 1975. New 35mm polyester viewing prints were then struck from this restored negative, using the color-tinted nitrate print as a color reference.
This new digital transfer was created on an ARRISCAN film scanner in 2K resolution from the new duplicate negative, as the Chimney Pot in Stockholm, using the same color-tinted print from the Swedish Film Institute as reference. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's Phoenix system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.
Yet with all that work done, there re still picture issues, as would be expected with a film over 90 years old like missing frames. Stains, scratches, and dirt are evident throughout. A hair got into the frame during the scene with David's brother in a jail cell. Brief flickering is also noticeable.
'The Phantom Carriage' made use of color tints over the black and white film. Each color was used for particular purposes, like blue for night, and appear here in a bright hue. There were occasional occurrences where the whites were overblown. The lines were sharper than I expected, and the softness within much of the frame is a result of the source.
The film comes with two scores. Composer Matti Bye created a traditional chamber score available in DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0. KTL offers an experimental score in LPCM 2.0. In Bye's score, the instruments can be heard individually without always blending together and the track displays good dynamics. KTL's score offers eerie atmospherics through its use of drones. There is much more of the bottom end heard here, and when the carriage pulls up at the first house the subwoofer rattles. This track also displays good dynamics.
I preferred Bye's score because it did a better job reflecting the emotion on screen. KTL's was too repetitive, creating limited emotions that at times contrasted with the scenes, causing a sense of dread when there needn't be.
Don't let its age fool you, Sjostrom's 'The Phantom Carriage' is well worth adding to your collection. This isn't a stodgy museum piece, but rather a film whose story and performances stand the test of time and cross all cultures. If my accolades and the fact that it inspired Ingmar Bergman to make films isn't enough to convince, take note that Charlie Chaplin is credited with calling it the greatest film ever made. Highly recommended.