100 Years Later: ‘The Phantom Carriage’ Is Still the Greatest New Year’s Movie
On New Year’s Day 1921, the world of cinema changed forever.
That was the day that “The Phantom Carriage,” one of the great masterworks of the silent era, was released. Now, exactly 100 years later, the film continues to transfix viewers through its sheer artistry and thought-provoking, life-affirming story.
The movie, directed by pioneering Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjöström, broke new ground on several cinematic fronts. In terms of visual effects, Sjöström made innovative use of double exposure, lap dissolves and cross-cutting. He also experimented with narrative form, framing an intricate series of flashbacks within flashbacks around a central moment in time.
That moment happens to be New Year’s Eve night (it was no coincidence that “The Phantom Carriage” was released on the first day of the year). Its story centers on an old Swedish legend, in which the last person to die before the stroke of midnight is doomed to drive Death’s chariot, collecting souls for the next year.
The film’s central character is David Holm, a violent alcoholic afflicted with tuberculosis, played with an affecting emotional range (and intensity) by Sjöström himself. As the new year approaches, David is sitting in a graveyard, sharing the ghastly story of the Phantom Carriage with two drinking buddies.
Meanwhile, a Salvation Army nun named Edit (Astrid Holm) is on her deathbed across town. Her last wish is to speak with David. The reason is not yet clear but will crystallize over the course of the film.
Soon, a fight breaks out in the graveyard, leaving David with a broken bottle across the skull just as the clock strikes 12. Naturally, Death’s carriage makes its unforgettable, otherworldly appearance. The driver, David’s recently deceased friend Georges (Tore Svennberg), beckons David to take the reins, but not before looking back on his wasted life.
From there, a cautionary tale of Dickensian dimensions unfolds. Sjöström flings us back and forth through a series of pivotal moments in David’s life, from his once-happy marriage with his wife Anna (Hilda Borgström) to his ruination from drink and initial encounters with Edit. Through it all, Sjöström creatively employs color tinting and other visual effects to suggest the emotional register of each scene.
Back in the present day (or, rather, night), Georges’ ghostly Grim Reaper and David’s disembodied spirit drift through the screen in groundbreaking double-exposure shots, bearing witness to the pain that David has wrought on Edit, Anna and others.
From our pandemic-stricken vantage point of 2021, it’s worth noting the ever-present threat of tuberculosis throughout “The Phantom Carriage.” David’s disease rears its head several times in the film — most notably, when, at the lowest points in his life, he intentionally coughs on others to infect them.
As for its flashback-structured story, “The Phantom Carriage” conjures up associations to Charles Dickens’ hugely influential “A Christmas Carol,” as well as other subsequent movies, such as “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Still, Sjöström’s film feels wholly original, even 100 years later. Without spoiling the ending too much, let’s just say the movie avoids predictable sentimentality, instead opting for a transcendent, soul-shattering climax.
Now, one full century removed from its premiere in 1921, it’s safe to say “The Phantom Carriage” has endured as one of cinema’s greatest achievements. Its influence can never be overstated, having inspired such legendary filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick.
Most importantly, the film’s emotional impact has not diminished a bit in the past 100 years. If anything, its beauty has only deepened, proving to be a timeworn yet timeless tale of new beginnings, new life and, yes, new years.
“The Phantom Carriage” is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel. It is also available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.
— Clinton Olsasky