The Phantom Carriage (Sjöström, 1921)

The level of refinement in this film—one made in 1921, almost a century ago—is astonishing. The double exposure used to give transparency to the phantoms is artfully done, certainly, and the acting is more nuanced and intuitive here than in most films released this decade. But what really drew me to this one was how brilliantly Sjöström nested the plot, resisting linearity and instead privileging the mental landscapes of his characters. What results is slightly rambling and chaotic as we learn about David Holm the man—yet this structure fits because Holm seems like a lost cause, and it requires a penetrating gaze into his soul in order to establish the state of his dissolution. Sjöström deceives us at first, not introducing Holm right from the get-go; he also initially presents him as a jovial rapscallion. But as the film dives further and further into his headspace, the devastating fissures that have torn him apart are laid bare, and we are privy to his attempts (and failures) to make amends.

The plot is a slightly different take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but it works because Sjöström’s abilities as both technician and performer are so tremendous for the time. It’s mighty tempting to balk at the moralistic nature of some aspects, I guess, and I don’t blame people for doing so. I think there’s much more to what Sjöström accomplishes than mere religious allegory, however. The psychological acuity brought about by how the story is layered supersedes it, as do the cinematography and special effects. Really, when you take a step back, the moralizing is the last thing you end up caring about in the face of such a sumptuously-wrought jewel.

P.S. I don’t know who composed the musical score for the version I watched, but I loved it. Great work to whoever did it.