The Phantom Chariot (Sweden, 1921):
(Körkarlen; The Stroke of Midnight; Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness)

Victor Sjöström starts with a fecund intertitle ("A young nurse from the slums lay dying"), a wealth of relations is soberly engraved: It's New Year's Eve, the Salvation Army Sister (Astrid Holm) asks the local lout (Sjöström) to be summoned, at his house the wife (Hilda Borgström) is found slumped on the floor facing the wall, she's brought to Holm's deathbed and strangling grips turn into compassionate hugs. From there, a dense line of causes and consequences, and bodies and spirits, recalled by tramps amid the tombstones. Scandinavian legend has it that souls are collected by the titular spectral carriage, driven by a wretched sinner following Death's orders, hooded and wielding a scythe (the ghostly chariot is translucently superimposed over the crashing waves of a shipwreck -- "his is a hard task"). Sjöström finishes telling his story-within-the-story and is summarily knocked over; the chariot pulls by his side, riding it is the late friend (Tore Svennberg) who triggered his fall from family man to brooding hobo, ready to pass the cloak of limbo over to him. The double-exposure photography used throughout is a stupefying achievement of its own, an incantation of overlapping worlds and a visualization of the characters' growing awareness of the connection between body and soul, and between physical action and emotional effect (the brutish protagonist faces prison, yet his most humbling epiphanies come from realizing how his behavior strikes people around him). Death brings sorrow for the Reaper especially, a notion seconded by Lang that same year in Der Müde Tod; various echoes of Griffith (Broken Blossoms, notably) can be heard in the family scenes, the Dickens element was noted by Capra (as well as its knotted planes of action, from the tavern to the Salvation Army meeting). Above all Bergman profited from Sjöström's complicated structure and subtlety as an actor (Wild Strawberries is a direct tribute), but the pupil was too sardonically anguished to reach the mentor's view of spiritual catharsis that can break through and unite the paralleling realms of the image. With Concordia Selander, Lisa Lundholm, Tor Weijden, and Einar Axelsson. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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