Victor Sjöström's silent mini-epic is also about storytelling and how a story is framed when it is told from multiple points of view. The film takes a straightforward narrative and transforms it into something complex and strange by shuffling the pieces around and having different characters relate them in flashback. This is not a cheap gimmick, as it all too often becomes in modern cinema (especially during the late-'90s wave of Pulp Fiction knockoffs and the mid-2000s wave of Short Cuts and Magnolia wannabes). Instead, this narrative strategy shows how one person's actions and point of view affect the community of people around that person, how the same story's focus can change when the storytellers are different, and the resonance and complexity of experience that are added to a story when it isn't so single-mindedly devoted to one character.
The Phantom Carriage begins with a young woman on her deathbed. The woman is a Salvation Army worker and devout Christian who is dying of galloping consumption. Attended by her mother and a fellow Salvation Army sister, the woman, Edit (Astrid Holm), shocks them both by asking them to summon a man named David Holm to her dying bedside. The audience doesn't know why yet, but both women are reluctant to perform this task. Edit's mother even begs her coworker not to summon David Holm. Edit's demands are too persistent, however, and the search begins. The audience is then told in the intertitles that it is New Year's Eve.
Next, we are introduced to three homeless alcoholics ringing in the new year by drinking in a graveyard next to a clock tower. One of the men tells a story about an older man he once knew to pass the time. In flashback, we see the relationship between the two men. The older man is kindhearted and comes from an academic background, but he's fallen into the seedier side of life through his alcoholism. The men are drinking, smoking, and gambling buddies, but the older man grows somber and afraid every New Year's Eve. The younger man asks him why New Year's Eve disturbs him so much, and the older man tells a story that we see in yet another layer of flashback. The older man is terrified to die on New Year's Eve because he believes the last person to die that day is doomed to drive Death's carriage for the year, collecting the souls that have died. We see some eerie footage of the phantom carriage in action, collecting the souls of a suicide victim and a man who drowns at sea.
When we return to the trio of drunkards, we learn the connection between one of the men and the dying Salvation Army worker, but we don't yet know how that connection was made. In the remaining 90 minutes, the various strands of the story come together to tell the singular tale of Edit, David Holm (played by Sjöström himself), Holm's wife and children, the phantom carriage, and the poor soul doomed to drive the carriage for the year. What follows is a sophisticated approach to storytelling and visual presentation that feels classic, not dated.
The visual style is complementary to the narrative approach. Using few effects other than super-imposition, colored tinting, costumes, and a handful of iris shots, Sjöström has a simple, direct style that is understated and naturalistic compared to many films of the era. The actors use small gestures instead of large, overstated ones, and Sjöström avoids flashy angles and camera tricks. At the same time, the organization of elements within the frame and the photography are elegant and imaginative without calling too much attention to themselves. It's a good-looking film that doesn't overwhelm the viewer with claustrophobic beauty. Despite its supernatural story, Sjöström's style is closer to the naturalism of the Lumieres instead of the fantasy worlds of Melies.
Victor Sjöström has been called the father of Swedish cinema and was a Renaissance man of silent film. He worked as an actor, screenwriter, and director, and was often all three at once. Born in 1879, he made his first film in 1912. As a director, his most well-known films are The Phantom Carriage and The Wind. He only directed a few films after the end of the silent era, but he continued acting until shortly before his death in 1960. Film buffs most likely know him as an actor in one of Carl Dreyer's greatest films, Ordet, and a couple of Ingmar Bergman films, To Joy and Wild Strawberries, the latter his final and most famous film in which he played an aging professor coming to terms with the choices he made in his personal life. If you only know him as an actor and like silent films, check out The Phantom Carriage. Criterion released it on DVD and Blu-Ray a few years ago in a pristine print with your choice of scores by Mattie Bye or KTL. I'm now kicking myself for not noticing which score was set when I watched it last night because it was a great piece of music.