If you’re observing Yom Kippur, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!
The Phantom Carriage, above all the other vintage horror films on tap for October and early November, is the most appropriate for the holiest day of the year. It’s about Fate, destiny, self-reflection, redemption, trying to amend past wrongs and hurts, life, and Death.
The Phantom Carriage was my long-awaited thousandth silent, first watched on New Year’s Eve 2015. Due to its milestone position in my still-growing list, it’s really, really special to me. I’m emotionally bonded to it, just like my first silent, Metropolis, or my first Rudy Valentino film, Blood and Sand.
The film is based upon Nobel Laureate and fellow limper Selma Lagerlöf’s 1912 novel Körkarlen (literally Wagoner, translated into English as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!). It takes place in early 20th century Sweden, and begins on New Year’s Eve. Appropriately, it released 1 January 1921.
Sister Edit is a Salvation Army missionary who’s dying of tuberculosis. She’s been sick for only a year, but the disease advanced very quickly.
Her last request, to see David Holm, stuns everyone by the deathbed.
The search for David is unsuccessful, though his wife comes to the deathbed. David (played by director Victor Sjöström) is spending New Year’s Eve drinking and smoking with two friends in a graveyard, near a large clock tower.
David tells a story about his friend Georges, and this story within a story turns into a story within a story within a story. The last person to die during the year will become a phantom charioteer harvesting souls.
We then get back to the story within a story, where Georges says that’s why he’s so afraid of something fatal happening on New Year’s Eve. Then we resume the main story, going back and forth between Sister Edit’s deathbed and David in the graveyard.
Missionary Gustavsson finally finds David, who refuses to come. After Gustavsson leaves, one of David’s friends insists if Sister Edit wants to see him, he must go at once. David’s refusal to go turns into a knock-down, drag-out fight as the clock edges towards midnight.
David doesn’t exactly emerge victorious from this brawl.
The phantom carriage arrives, driven by Georges, who’s stunned to learn who’s taking over his duties. David demands Georges put him in the cart and take him to hospital, but Georges says no living souls ride in that cart. By the time he arrives, it’s too late for a doctor. Georges also tells David he must face the consequences of the evil he’s wrought during his lifetime, and blames himself for the horrible turn David’s life took. If David hadn’t fallen in with Georges, he’d still be living a happy, good life with his family.
We then move back to the story within a story device, as we learn what led David to such a state. We see his early happiness with his wife and children; his descent into drunkenness and jail; his devastation when he returns from jail and discovers his wife left him; and his determination to give his wife a taste of her own medicine.
After this, it’s back to the graveyard, and then we return to the story within a story as we see what happened last New Year’s Eve. David, by then sick with tuberculosis, came to a new Salvation Army station, his heart full of rage and ice, and was quite rude and cruel to both Sister Edit and her colleague Sister Maria.
In spite of David’s rudeness and the danger of germs, Sister Edit mends his coat while he’s sleeping. She’s pleased to help the first guest God sent them. Her kindness is repaid with rudeness and mean-spiritedness, but Sister Edit remains undeterred. Before David leaves, she asks him to return next New Year’s Eve so she can see the results of her prayer for the first guest to have a good year. David says he’ll return to show her the futility of her prayers.
Georges says it’s time to fulfill that promise.
Georges drags him to Sister Edit’s deathbed, and Sister Edit begs for one grace day so she can make things right. There follows yet another story within a story, as we see how Sister Edit reunited David and his wife, followed by their marriage’s acrimonious unravelling.
I won’t spoil anything that happens after this point, but suffice it to say, this film is a haunting, intense, emotional powerhouse, with an unforgettable ending.
I’ll close with this film’s famous, twice-repeated prayer:
“Gud, låt min själ få komma till mognad innan den skall skördas!”
(“God, let my soul come to maturity before being harvested!”)