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  Phantom Carriage, The The Wheels Keep Turning
Year: 1921
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander, Lisa Lundholm, Tor Weijden, Einar Axelsson, Olof Ås, Nils Aréhn, Simon Lindstrand, Nils Elffors, Algot Gunnarsson, Hildur Lithman, John Ekman
Genre: Horror, Drama, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: It is New Year's Eve in this rundown Swedish town, and a Salvation Army nurse, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), lies on her death bed having contracted turberculosis. As she swims in and out of consciousness the attending nurses ask her if there's anything she wants, and her reply is to see David Holm (Victor Sjöström) one final time before she dies, a plea which is met with much discomfort as he is notorious as one of the most disreputable men in the region. Nonetheless, one of the nurses rushes out and heads for Holm's house, not aware that he has been waiting on midnight in the local graveyard...

The Phantom Carriage, or Körkarlen as it was originally called, was probably best known for its association with one of the most famous, if not the most famous, Swedish film directors of all time. Ingmar Bergman was a huge fan of it and not only was it a work he screened every year for his own appreciation and others', but you could see a very definite influence from director Victor Sjöström's efforts here to Bergman's most celebrated classics. Obviously it had a strong hold over the film both men made together, Wild Strawberries, and there were many parallels between the two, not only in the vision of the carriage of the title appearing in visions to the main characters of both.

Each of those men played by Sjöström at different stages of his life, naturally, making neat bookends to his career and providing those who like to analyse movies with plenty of food for thought. This nineteen-twenties film was more or less the sort of morality fable which went down well with pious audiences of the day, drawn from the book by Selma Lagerlöf which apparently was seeking to do the same for New Year's Eve what Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol had done for Yuletide as both featured irredeemable men undergoing a surprise change of heart through supernatural means and embracing their better qualities which had been so well hidden for most of their sorry lives.

David Holm seems like an unlikely choice of a pet project for a young Salvation Army member such as Astrid, but it is her piety in doing Jesus Christ's work to save the souls of the sinners which makes her the ideal person to try and turn Holm's life around before it is too late and he is sent to damnation in Hell. Make no mistake, all that Heaven and Hell business really does exist in this film's universe, as we see when the phantom carriage arrives to reap the souls of the dying, driven by an agent of Death itself who happens to be the last person who expired at the stroke of midnight on December the 31st, who is then forced to do the work of the dead, with every minute lasting a hundred years as every one of the deceased must be taken from this world to the next.

Sjöström managed to bring an appropriately macabre atmosphere to the story, with its mythos nicely realised with a touch or two of the Gothic about it, though for the most part this was a melodrama detailing one man's fall from grace, leaving us wondering if he will ever find salvation when he behaves so reprehensibly for the majority of the running time. Not only does he walk out on his wife and two young daughters, but he does his best to devote his existence to the demon drink - as with many a morality tale, no good comes of alcohol, not even on New Year's Eve - and thanks to his unhygenic habits manages to give Sister Edit the illness which is killing her when she was good enough to mend his filthy coat while he slept off the effects of booze in the shelter she ran. She still has faith in the man and her ability to rouse him from his life of sin, so she makes him vow to see her again at the end of December to prove her prayers for him worked, which brings us full circle as the near-death man visits her in spirit form. To appreciate this a certain religiosity was necessary, but it held up well.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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