The Phantom Carriage (The Criterion Collection)
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The last person to die on New Year’s Eve before the clock strikes twelve is doomed to take the reins of Death’s chariot and work tirelessly collecting fresh souls for the next year. So says the legend that drives The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen), directed by the father of Swedish cinema, Victor Sjöström (The Wind), about an alcoholic, abusive ne’er-do-well (Sjöström himself) who is shown the error of his ways and the pure-of-heart Salvation Army sister who believes in his redemption. Based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, this extraordinarily rich and innovative silent classic (which inspired Ingmar Bergman to make movies) is a Dickensian ghost story and a deeply moving morality tale, as well as a showcase for groundbreaking special effects.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES • New digital transfer, restored in collaboration with the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute • Two scores, one by acclaimed Swedish composer Matti Bye and the other by the experimental duo KTL • Audio commentary featuring film historian Casper Tybjerg • Interview with Ingmar Bergman excerpted from the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait, by Gösta Werner • The Bergman Connection, an original visual essay by film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie on The Phantom Carriage’s influence on Bergman • New and improved English subtitle translation • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Mayersberg • More!
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The Phantom Carriage is a silent Swedish film made by legendary actor/director Victor Sjöström. While Sjöström is known more for his acting performances later in life, namely as the protagonist in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, he originally made his mark as a prolific and very innovative director, beginning in the silent era and spanning into early talkies. This film is considered by many to be one of his very best and is a perfect example of how Sjöström both pioneered and refined techniques that were used for decades to come.
The film uses double exposures quite extensively. While this technique was not new, for this film it was far more advanced, consisting of multiple layers and dimensions. While the techniques may seem obvious and even primitive by today's standards, they left audiences awed and mesmerized 90 years ago. Another innovation of this film is the unique structure in which it's told. This is one of the first movies to make extensive use of flashbacks, going as far as having flashbacks within flashbacks.
I will briefly cover the plot, as to not ruin the film for someone who has never seen it before. The film opens on a dark and depressing New Year's Eve with a young Salvation Army sister named Edit lying on her deathbed. Her last wish is to see David Holm, an alcoholic she had tried to help the previous New Year's Eve. David promised Edit that he would return on this very day to show her if her prayers for him had been answered. Since he has yet to arrive, someone is sent to find him before it's too late. David (portrayed by Sjöström) is found in a local cemetery with two of his drinking buddies recalling a legend told to them by their friend Georges. The legend states that the last person to die each year has to work the following year for Death collecting souls from the dead. The irony is that after telling the legend, Georges himself died on New Year's Eve. David and his friends are drinking and laughing until an altercation occurs, leading to David's accidental death right before the stroke of midnight. His soul steps out of his body right before Death's carriage arrives revealing Georges as its driver. From here the story has a Dickens-like feel as Georges drives David around in the carriage showing him the mistakes he's made via flashbacks. The rest of the story shall remain unspoiled. . . I hope you enjoy it as much as I have over the years.
The Phantom Carriage, based on the novel "Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!" (Körkarlen) by Nobel-prize winning author Selma Lagerlöf, is an example of a somewhat modernized version of the old right vs. wrong morality tales. The main message in the film is to show how problems, such as alcoholism, can completely destroy someones life, but with a little faith and guidance, salvation is always attainable. In this, and many of his other films, Sjöström so masterfully shows the problems he saw within society, and the impact they could have on us if not resolved. . .
**Special Features and Technical Aspects - As Listed by Criterion**
-New digital restoration, done in collaboration with the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute
-Two scores, one by Swedish composer Matti Bye and the other by the experimental duo KTL
-Audio commentary featuring film historian Casper Tybjerg
-Interview with Ingmar Bergman, excerpted from the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait, by Gösta Werner
-The Bergman Connection, an original visual essay by film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie on the film's influence on Bergman
-Footage of the construction of the Räsunda studio where The Phantom Carriage was the inaugural production
-New and improved English subtitle translation
-PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Mayersberg
Black and White
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is one of those silent movies to show people who think they don't like silent movies. I have yet to meet someone that I have shown it to who was not captivated by it. Part of that is due to the similarity of the plot to a well known English property which I won't name here but a lot of it is due to the simple but creative special effects that seem perfectly natural in keeping with the story being told. Credit should also be given to the lead performances of Victor Sjostrom and Hilda Borgstrom which seem as contemporary as anything seen today. It's easy to see why Ingmar Bergman would have been attracted to and inspired by this story of a vicious alcoholic who receives his comeuppance and an unexpected shot at redemption. The dysfunctional family theme, long a staple of Scandinavian drama, also plays well today. A surprising movie that still has the power to engage and enthrall audiences 90 years later.
"The Phantom Carriage" (Körkarlen) is a silent film from 1921 that is a film adaptation of the novel "They Soul Shall Bear Witness!" by Nobel-prize winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (the first female writer to win the prize and is best known for her children's book "The Wonderful Adventures of Nils").
The film would be directed by Victor Sjöström who would also play the lead role of the film.
Known for directing films in the U.S. during the 1920's, it's unfortunate that for a talented filmmaker and actor, the majority of his films are considered as lost. Fortunately, those that did survive are his film adaptations of Lagerlöf novels such as the "Sons of Ingmar" (1919), "Karin, Daughter of Ingmar" (1920) and "The Phantom Carriage" (1921). The latter which received restoration courtesy of the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute.
And now, "The Phantom Carriage" will receive its HD treatment on Blu-ray and also standard DVD release courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
"The Phantom Carriage" is presented in High Definition, tinted color and the fact that earlier versions that many people have watched this in the past were not in the greatest condition and considering the fact that the original film elements were not fully complete, I was quite amazed to see how beautiful this film looked on Blu-ray.
The film also utilized double exposures made in the camera but used in a greater form for the film in order to create the ghost characters. A very challenging special effect for its time.
Presented as a color-tinted silent film, "The Phantom Carriage" on Blu-ray is the best version of the film to date. Is it pristine? The answer is no. You can see occasional white specks, hairs or tears on the original film element, flickering but with that being said, none of these will ruin one's viewing of the film. In fact, the fact that it's complete, not hindered by any nitrate composition or any degradation, for a film that is 90-years-old, if you are a silent film fan, you can't help but be appreciative that the film look so good and that the Criterion Collection has chosen to release this film on Blu-ray.
According to the Criterion Collection, the restoration of "The Phantom Carriage" was undertaken 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 with print with English intertitles. From these source elements, a new black-and-white duplicate negative with Swedish intertitles was completed in 1975. New 35 mm polyester viewing prints were then struck from this restored negative, using the color-tinted nitrate print as a color reference.
Criterion Collection also pointed out that the new digital transfer was created on an ARRISCAN film scanner in 2K resolution from the new duplicate negative, at the Chimney Pot in Stokcholm, 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.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
"The Phantom Carriage " is presented with two scores. One by Swedish composer Matti Bye and the other by the experimental duo KTL.
The original 1998 Matti Bye composition used on this Blu-ray release is absolutely beautiful. Presented in DTS-HD MA, the music with its piano, horns and strings does a great job of enhancing my appreciation of the film. The music is coordinated just right to the scenes of the film and for the most part, is a wonderful score which sounds great via lossless.
As for the KTL soundtrack is presented in LPCM 2.0 and the experimental music makes this film feel quite dark and menacing. It stays that way throughout the whole film and the sound is quite eery. The score of course is subjective to the listener but listening to the score and watching the film, it gives you the feel of a horror film.
So, overall, I preferred the Matti Bye soundtrack because it is more emotional and upbeat compared to the KTL experimental score.
The film is presented with Swedish intertitles in English and special features with English subtitles.
"The Phantom Carriage - The Criterion Collection #579' on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:
Audio Commentary-featuring an in-depth audio commentary by film historian Casper Tybjerg who helps explain the film but also the sentiments of the viewers watching the film at the time.
Ingmar Bergman - (15:19) An interview with Ingmar Bergman, excerpted from the 1981 documentary "Victor Sjöström: A Portrait", by Gösta Werner
The Bergman Connection - (18:12) An original visual essay by film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie on the film's influence on Bergman.
Construction of the Räsunda Studio -(4:43) Short footage of where "The Phantom Carriage" was the inaugural production.
"The Phantom Carriage - The Criterion Collection #579' comes with an 20-page booklet. The essay "Phantom Forms" by Paul Mayersberg is included plus information on the two scores included on this Blu-ray release.
We often hear from filmmakers in America who talk about the American filmmakers and films that inspired them to pursue a career in the industry.
In Sweden, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman who was only a 1-year-old when "The Phantom Carriage" came out, would later become inspired by Victor Sjöström's work and how his exploration of the human psyche, their melancholy, a character being miserable and the emotional pain that they harbor inside..these are things that are a big part of Bergman's oeuvre.
As Bergman is known as the filmmaker to capture human suffering, for Bergman it began with Victor Sjöström who would go on to introduce his style of filmmaking in America and showcase the mental anguish of a person in "He Who Gets Slapped" (1924), "The Scarlet Letter" (1926) and "The Wind" (1928). And while many historians have always recommended Sjöström's "The Wind" (as it is one of Lillian Gish's finest acting performances), "The Phantom Carriage" was definitely a film which is a product of its time that does have its relevance today.
We have seen how alcoholism affected a person, especially a father and his family in film. This is nothing new. But in 1921, alcoholism was never fully explored, nor its ramifications. Tuberculosis is still a problem today, but even moreso back then. It was a bold film to take on such a subject of how an alcoholic can hurt his family and others, but also lead to one's death. And yes, there is a little introduction to how those who submitted to God have changed for the best, but for those who frown upon preachy religious films, this is not one of them.
If anything, one can easily call this a psychological thriller mixed with drama. The film for its time can be seen as dark as it showcased human suffering and interesting enough, Stanley Kubrick's film "The Shining" which has a famous axe scene is quite similar to the axe scene found in this film. Granted, this is not a horror film but compared to other silent horror films that I have seen (which are not too scary), I can only imagine how audiences reacted when they first watched this film. It's definitely not a happy upbeat film but it does manage to work itself out in the end and I guess, one can say the film is not all tragic.
There are life changing moments and for the most part, "The Phantom Carriage" is a pre-cursor of the human suffering type of films that Victor Sjöström would create several years later and a theme that would have its impact on Ingmar Bergman's work.
So, "The Phantom Carriage" does have its place as an important film not only to Swedish cinema but also for its darker theme that was not as prevalent in 1921. But as many people are discovering Ingmar Bergman's films through the new releases on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection, the company has been good in showing films in which these filmmakers were inspired from.
So, this is one important film that fans of Bergman's work can really enjoy. So, as Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo were an inspiration to future French filmmakers, Victor Sjöström was the same as he inspired Swedish filmmakers, specifically Ingmar Bergman. And for Bergman, he had watched this film over 100 times and has said that from the first time he had watched the film, he would eventually watch it every year since then.
"The Phantom Carriage" was a big impact on his life and to know Bergman's work and why he is so enamored with human suffering, you need to look past Bergman and watch a Victor Sjöström film.
"The Phantom Carriage" is recommended!
The last person to die on New Year's Eve before the stroke of midnight must drive Death's chariot, collecting the souls of those who die throughout the next year. Sjostrom himself plays David, an abusive alcoholic who becomes the chariot rider's successor and is shown the harm and misery he brought to others.
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is an atmospheric masterpiece. Told in what was then an innovative flashback format, the film utilizes double and even multiple exposures in ways previously unseen to simulate the spectral, horse driven carriage and its doomed rider. The film is also noteworthy for some of the earliest night for night photography ever attempted in a motion picture. This remarkably moving parable of a film was a huge influence on the work of Ingmar Bergman, especially THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES, both from 1957.
Criterion's exceptional Blu-ray was transferred from a restored duplicate negative derived from two prints; a black and white nitrate and a color tinted nitrate. Two optional scores are included; a chamber orchestral work and an experimental, computer composition. The special features give us an absorbing commentary by historian Casper Tybjerg, a 1981 interview with Ingmar Bergman, an essay by Peter Cowie on the film's influence on Bergman, some footage of the construction of Rasunda studio where THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE was shot, and a booklet by Paul Mayersberg discussing the film's importance.
As usual, Criterion has done a beautiful job in putting this edition together, and it does ample justice to an extraordinary film that deserves wider recognition. Its haunting quality is unforgettable.