The legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman held much fondness for his fellow countryman Victor Sjöström’s landmark 1921 silent film “The Phantom Carriage.” And according to Turner Classic Movies, Bergman wrote in his autobiography that Sjöström “mostly saw the failings” in “The Phantom Carriage” and “was annoyed by his own sloppiness and lack of skill.” Neutral observers can dispute Sjöström’s assessment of his own skills, of course, and many have since “The Phantom Carriage” is considered seminal not just in the Swedish film lexicon but in the global one too. Still, that defeatism has echoes in the character Sjöström memorably portrays in “The Phantom Carriage” as well as in the attitude of the entire film itself. It is set on New Year’s Eve for a reason, after all, a time of the year that, in the face of getting older, becomes less about laying in gutters with empty bottles for ostensible celebration’s sake than laying in gutters with empty bottles because mostly all we can see as the calendar sets to flip is our own failings.
Perhaps the film’s most famously arresting images involve the titular vehicle, helmed by death itself, typically presented on screen through the use of double exposure, placing the carriage, say, over the image of waves crashing as the carriage comes to collect someone drowning. It doesn’t take any fancy metaphors to explain that these evokes the idea of apparitions, and it retains the spookiness that must have chilled audiences to the bone then. Still, these ghostly images paled in comparison for me to another shot, an earlier shot, set in a cemetery near midnight on New Year’s Eve when the camera picks out a clock tower at about a quarter ‘til midnight. Sjöström includes nothing else in the frame – just the clock tower and darkness all around it. It’s like a lighthouse, warning not of the shore but of time, persnickety time, and all we have failed to do.
That idea of time, so central to December 31st, is part and parcel to the narrative, which is not straight-forward but content to jump in and out and all around, beginning in the present but then drifting back into the past, and further still, a movie layered in three different levels of flashbacks, jumping in and out, like someone’s mind ruminating. Because essentially the film’s principal character – David Holm (Sjöström) – is forced to ruminate over his life.
The film opens with a Salvation Army Nurse named Edit (Astrid Holm) on death’s door as the new year beckons. As she lies in bed, she calls out for David Holm. Why, we do not know, considering he’s a drunken lout, but the flashbacks gradually make it clear that he turned his wife and children away by becoming a drunken lout and now is searching for his wife, perhaps to make amends, or perhaps just to excoriate her. These flashbacks arrive in the wake of David’s death just prior to midnight, marking him as the last person to the die in the old year, meaning that in the new year he will be responsible for shepherding The Phantom Carriage and gathering up the dead. The driver shows up to take David, yet what the driver does instead is less showing his new charge the ropes than showing him how he might reform.
The then American release apparently re-edited the movie into a completely straightforward narrative rather than one skipping around in time, and apparently it sought to render the film as strictly a parable about the dangers of the drink. Those dangers are apparent in the real version too, though nowhere near as prominently, with the alcoholism functioning more as an extension of the terrors of life itself, of the sense that clock is always ticking and that to simply try and keep on keeping on in the face of forever looming death is folly. The women in the movie are almost uniformly presented as tired yet dutiful, bound to what life asks of them whether or not they like it, exasperated with David yet alternately supportive of wanting him to shape up. The choice to do so, of course, is his alone.
“The Phantom Carriage” shares parallels with “A Christmas Carol” in so much as a character is tasked with reforming from his wicked ways by being shown the way things were, the way things are and the way things might be. Of course, “A Christmas Carol” opted for an optimistic ending in spite of so much darkness preceding it while “The Phantom Carriage” is much more nebulous in its conclusion, befitting what Garrison Keillor might have termed the dark Lutheranism of Scandinavia. “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped,” David Holm prays as the film fades out. Except…it feels less like a prayer than a plea. David Holm isn’t just going to be given his happy ending. He’s going to have to earn it. You’re left wondering if he’s really up to a task.
I envisioned a flash-forward ending to 365 days later in which that clock tower would be counting down again to the regret-filled peeling of its bells.