“I want to be good, but no one believes me. Is it any wonder I cry?”
So we just looked at Battleship Potemkin, a masterpiece of the silent film era that I didn’t care for too much. I was fairly sure I knew why I didn’t like it, but I wanted to watch another silent film and make sure I wasn’t just being resistant to the whole lot of them. So for comparison purposes, I took a look at The Phantom Carriage, a Swedish silent film of 1921 that is different from Battleship Potemkin in quite a few ways. It turns out I liked this one a lot more.
Above all, this movie really won me over with its plot. I can’t think of any film around the same time period with such an intricate story. The film is an adaptation of a 1912 novel, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness, and it keeps true to its twisted narrative. The story feels like a darker twist on Dickens’ Christmas Carol as David Holm (played by director Victor Sjostrom himself) sees the horrors of the live he has lived and ultimately decides to turn it around. There are flashbacks inside flashbacks, and the narrative is surprisingly thoughtful for something from the silent film era. I also just love the idea of this ghostly carriage driver doomed to work for Death, collecting his souls for a year until the job is passed on to another unfortunate deceased. It’s a chilling idea that blends itself well into the narrative.
The Phantom Carriage is also lauded for its impressive special effects. This movie apparently spent an immense amount of time in the post-production phase for its extensive use of double exposure. This all pays off, though, as the effects are truly spectacular for a 1921 film, and it was the first movie in which ghostly characters could walk around in three dimensions with another set of footage underneath, allowing David to rise from his body into his spectral form. I can only imagine the impact this had on audiences in 1921 who had really seen nothing to this degree before. Great effects are always worthy of praise, especially in such early days of cinema.
What makes me say this film better than Battleship Potemkin? Well, I just enjoyed watching it more. There’s a fascinating narrative to follow and characters to latch onto. A film like Potemkin undoubtedly has stronger cinematography and is a fun little spectacle, but The Phantom Carriage is a real story. Personally, I like stories about people. There are all kinds of big epic movies that drop you right into some historic event and it’s all so mind-blowing, but you never get a taste of who’s involved. There are numerous strong voices in this film with which you can connect. Potemkin was a film with something to say: Revolution is cool. But this movie feels more important because it speaks to the human condition. It says: You have an obligation to care for the people you love, and you don’t have much time. Sure, you can’t slap some booming orchestral number onto that, but I think it makes a bigger impact when all is said and done.
Speaking of music, it’s probably the thing that bugged me the most about the movie. I was looking through various versions of the movie online, and they were all completely silent. At first I thought the film just didn’t have any tunes underneath, until Wikipedia let me in on some info. Apparently orchestras would just play some random jams from various composers underneath the film. Then there was a period in the mid-20th century where some low quality tracks made their way into distribution with the film, until recently when a few contemporary artists have taken a crack at underscoring the movie. What I ended up listening to didn’t seem to work at all. I’m not sure which version I ended up hearing, but I’m certain it was one of these modern pieces. It was too spooky in a conventional sense. I didn’t feel like I was watching a spooky 1920s silent film. Finding high quality versions of these movies is already a chore, so I bailed out on trying to find a version with the original music. But if you’re interested in watching this one, it may be worth your wild to do so, or maybe just go without sound at all. What I ended up hearing just felt strange.
Victor Sjostrom is often placed among the ranks of Ingmar Bergman as one of Sweden’s greatest cinematic talents. Bergman himself described The Phantom Carriage as a major influence on his work. The special effects are certainly cool, but I would recommend this movie for taking a bold step towards complexity in plot. Seriously, this story goes a lot deeper and has a lot more to say than a lot of movies that find their way into theaters today. It’s a really strong work of the silent film era that I would highly recommend.
Films Left to Watch: 976