Up next is The Phantom Carriage, a 1921 Swedish film based on a novel by author Selma Lagerlöf. The plot centers around a legend that the first person to pass away at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve will be forced to drive Death's carriage and collect the lost souls of Earth for a year's time. It is a story of repentance, guilt, and consequences for one's actions. The film opens on New Year's Eve to Sister Edit, a Salvation Army worker who is on her deathbed and wishes to a speak to a man named David Holm before she dies. David is our protagonist and, by all accounts, a horribly unkind man. As Sister Edit begs to see him, David is getting drunk in a graveyard and he tells the story of his old friend Georges, the man who believed in the legend of Death's carriage and who feared the coming of midnight every New Year's Eve. David remarks that his friend had died the previous New Year's Eve.
Anyway, a fight breaks out between David and his inebriated friends which results in David getting a bottle to the head. He collapses and his friends flee in fear. Death's carriage arrives just as David'd soul leaves his body and he is shocked to be reunited with his friend, Georges, who has spent the last year doing the bidding of his "strict master" as the carriage's conductor. From here begins a series of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks that explore the friendship of the two men and how Georges led David astray from the path to a good life with his wife and children. These flashbacks within flashbacks were unheard of at the time of it's films release and this narrative device became a staple of Swedish cinema. The film was also lauded for it's special affects and, despite the film's age, I was actually quite impressed with the rather believable transparency of Georges' and David's spectral forms. You could actually see through them in most shots.
When I see those effects in a film today, there's no real mystery to how that was accomplished; it's always computer graphics. Although I don't know the particulars behind the science, at the very least I understand the origins of those effects. However, in the case of The Phantom Carriage, I could not begin to wonder how such effects were accomplished when even the most basic of computer models were still half a century from being developed. After some research, I discovered that the effects were created by superimposing several 2 or 3 layers of film exposure in order to create a 3D environment. This allowed background objects to appear behind the ghostly David and Georges but foreground objects to appear in front of them. By all accounts, this was a painstaking process.
Beyond the film's visual marvels and narrative tour-de-force, the characters themselves were quite compelling and their motivations were mostly clear and easy to discern. David's character, portrayed wonderfully by the film's director Victor Sjöström, was unsympathetic right up until the end of the film and his jeering, sarcastic laugh, which of course you couldn't hear, was plain to spot on his smirking face. David's wife, Anna, abandoned him after time served in jail for drunken behavior in order to get away from his destructiveness. This act sets David back several steps on his road to recovery and he vows to get revenge on his wife. Finally, there is unconditionally kind and charitable Sister Edit, always putting others needs ahead of her own and always forgiving even the most atrocious acts from David.
The two cross paths when David stumbles drunkenly into the Salvation Army home where Sister Edit was working one New Year's Eve night. While David sleeps as the home's first guest, Sister Edit stays up all night mended the drunkard's threadbare coat, paying no never mind to the filth and germs it carries. She even speaks a little prayer for him at the stroke of midnight, wishing a blessed new year. The following morning, David notices the patches on his coat and asks to see Sister Edit. His behavior lulls audiences into a fall sense of security; he seems humbled by Sister Edit's kindness and we almost hold our breathe that he'll actually thank her or - dare we hope? - offer to return the favor somehow. But of course, the bitter David is not capable of such humility. In a shocking scene set to heart-racing music, David callously rips off the patches and destroys his newly mended coat with a laugh, telling Sister Edit, "I'm used to having it like this." But Sister Edit, though shocked, doesn't run away in tears or ask him how he could be so cruel. Instead, she asks that he visit her again next New Year's Eve to find if her prayer will be answered. David agrees, if only to show her that "God doesn't give a fig for your or your twaddle."
From there, we find out that the person David has been searching for all over Sweden, the person who has, in his eyes, reset his earlier desire to turn over a new leaf, the person who seemingly broke is heart and poisoned his soul with bitterness, was not too far from his reach. Anna, David's wife, reappears as part of Sister Edit's congregation. Anna confesses this to Sister Edit and the kind but naive Sister decided the reunion of husband and wife is David's only hope for redemption. They are reunited and there is a glimmer of hope, but as his destruction of his coat showed us already, David is incapable of kindness and, soon we see, his is incapable of forgiveness. Husband and wife attempt a life together, but David has not kicked his drinking habit yet. He comes home drunk one night and Anna attempts, yet again, to flee with her children. She locks David in the kitchen and David breaks down the door with an ax, in a scene that clearly inspired a similar moment in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
Truly, the performances in this film are quite remarkable. If I had any complaints about anything, I suppose it would be that my modern sensibilities can't fully accept Sister Edit's sudden proclamations of love for David at the end of the film when Georges, in full Grim Reaper regalia, pays her a visit, David in tow. Sister Edit begs for a day's reprieve, claiming that she cannot die until she learns of the fate of the man she loves. She even goes so far as to claim that she is the reason for David's misery. She believed that had she never reunited David and Anna, then David's sin "would be of a lesser magnitude." This was concerning to me since David never gave her a reason to be worthy of Sister Edit's love and for Sister Edit to blame herself for David's despicable behavior is reminiscent of brainwashed victims of abuse.
However, I forgive this plot point for a number of reasons. First, it's entirely possible that Sister Edit's love for David is not of a romantic nature. Even Georges calls her a person "of loving heart." As a woman of God, she is capable of loving all of God's children, even wayward ones like David. At the very least, I chose to read it as a simple platonic love for David as a person rather than a romantic love for David as a man. Such a love would make more sense considering the kind of person she is. Also, it was Sister Edit's concern for David's well-being and her love for him that moved him to finally feel remorse for his actions. It's very possible that were it not for this emotionally wrought moment in which a woman on her deathbed, whose death David caused by infecting her with tuberculosis (or consumption, as it was called then), begging for his life and his soul. That Sister Edit would, again, put David's life before her own, even as her life comes to a close, gives David the desire to seek redemption.
This moment between Sister Edit and David is followed by a very dramatic, even more emotional ending, which I won't spoil for you here. But let's just say it brought me to tears.
I didn't expect my dissection to be so lengthy, but at 107 minutes, The Phantom Carriage is the longest of the silent films thus far. I was going to save Nosferatu for a separate post, but having seen it, there's really not much to say.
A classic silent horror and another addition to the German Expressionist movement that was so prevalent in the 20s and 30s, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror was the only film by Prana Films, which declared bankruptcy in an attempt to dodge a copyright infringement suit brought to them by Bram Stroker's widow, Florence Balcombe. Incidentally, the film was written by Henrik Galeen, the same person who wrote The Golem, one of the subjects of my Day Two post.
Delectably creepy, what Nosferatu lacks in storytelling it makes up for in suspense and a killer antagonist (pun intended). The over-the-top acting and plot points that seem to be connected by very fragile threads failed to really captivate me. In fact, I found myself giggling at the ludicrously dramatic movements and exaggerated facial expressions by the characters. Truthfully, the only time I cared to really absorb what was going on on screen was any time Max Schreck appeared as the titular "Vampyre." As a character in horror, I felt that Nosferatu lived up to his reputation, but there were far too many plot hole for my liking: the strange plague connection that had almost no impact on the overall story (aside from being used as a cover for the deaths at the hands of Nosferatu); the bizarre move from Transylvania to Germany just so Nosferatu can watch the protagonist's wife sleep and eventually suck her blood felt too much like a desperate attempt to put the film's Mina Murray analog in the vampire's path (in Dracula, the count left Transylvania in search of new blood so he can create more vampires, but seeing as Nosferatu kills his victims rather than turn them, the move made less sense); the weird real estate agent who was inexplicably an emissary to Nosferatu and became the subject of a town-wide witch hunt towards the end of the movie at a time when everyone was supposed to remain indoors because of the plague danger felt a lot like filler and fluff; and then there's the inconsistent lighting that made midnight and midday completely indiscernible from one another. All of this made Nosferatu a sub par film compared to the likes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Phantom Carriage. It's ironic that Florence Balcombe tried to sue Prana Films for copyright infringement seeing that the plot points that were removed from the original Dracula in an attempt to make the film different enough from the novel became the film's narrative downfall.
Join me next time as I digest another silent horror, Haxan, followed by the very heartbreaking tale of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. See you then!
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