Oct 26, 2017

The Phantom Carriage

While I would not exactly call myself a silent cinema connoisseur and I tend to only be willing to sample the best that the pre-sound era has to offer, I have to admit that the greatest of these films has a singular hypnotic quality that sound cinema seems to somehow lack. Apparently, actor turned one-time-auteur Charles Laughton believed this too and was heavily inspired by both the great cinematic works of film pioneer D.W. Griffith and German expressionist films of the 1920s when creating his directorial debut The Night of the Hunter (1955). Undoubtedly, my initial viewings of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Jean Cocteau’s Le sang d'un poète (1930) aka The Blood of a Poet, and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and especially Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) proved to be such profound cinematic experiences for me to the degree that I found myself questioning the power of a cinema and ultimately coming to the natural conclusion that it is an artistic medium that is truly unrivaled when it comes to pleasurably imprisoning the subconscious and putting the viewer in a waking trance of sorts.  Hell, even a largely forgotten silent short like Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja (1924) aka Cloud Phenomena of Majola directed by Teutonic mountain film maestro Arnold Fanck has a certain exceptional ethereal quality that seems impossible to reproduce nowadays.

While it had been a number of years since I had a comparable experience with silent cinema, a somewhat recent first time viewing of the fairly influential Swedish horror masterpiece The Phantom Carriage (1921) aka Körkarlen aka The Phantom Chariot aka The Stroke of Midnight aka Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness directed by and starring early silent maestro Victor Sjöström (The Outlaw and His Wife, He Who Gets Slapped) reminded me of the singular power and pulchritude of pre-talkie cinema. Like a virtual Nordic Gothic antithesis (and virtual prototype) to Frank Capra’s classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), the film tells the surprisingly darkly morose and and unwaveringly grim yet ultimately moral tale of a belligerent wino learning the hard way that life is worth living after a serious brush with death that involves a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper figure in a hooded black cloak teaching lessons as opposed to a lovably jolly, if not seemingly semi-autistic, angel without wings named Clarence like in the Hollywood flick. More a dysfunctional family drama about the perennial homewrecker known as alcohol than any sort of ‘pure’ horror flick featuring cheap scares and banally enigmatic monsters, The Phantom Carriage is not only one of the greatest silent films ever made but also one of the greatest, if not the greatest, film on the subject of alcoholism and its deleterious effects on friends and families. 

 Indeed, as much as I hate being around drunkards (aside from having various friends that degenerated into alcoholics, I was once a bouncer), I would be lying if I did not admit that some of my favorite films, including John Huston’s underrated Malcolm Lowry adaptation Under the Volcano (1984), are about the perils of dipsomania, and I would certainly argue that Sjöström’s film is unequivocally the best of the best despite being one of the first films to seriously tackle the subject. In fact, what makes The Phantom Carriage so effortlessly brilliant and striking is that it manages to relatively seamlessly merge the metaphysical horrors of alcohol with conventions of the horror genre in a fashion that is more or less timeless, hence why it is still one of the very few films of its era that still packs a pleasantly pernicious punch. Surely, Sjöström’s flick is Häxan (1922) tier as far as silent Nordic horror is concerned, albeit with a more innately important message. Based on the novel Körkarlen (1912) aka Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! written by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf whose works auteur Sjöström had already cinematically adapted three times previously, the film is like a gothic proto-psychedelic fable on acid-laced steroids where the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity is depicted and where human frailty in the face of both addiction and disease is handled with a refreshing lack of sentimentalism, at least in comparison to other films from that era. Among other things, the viewer is exposed to suicide, deadly drunken brawls, deathbed hysteria, deadbeat dad style family dysfunction, and a decidedly dark climax involving an extremely lonely and desperate mother getting ready to execute a filicide-suicide scenario while her unwitting children sleep nearby with baby dolls with cracked plastic heads in their beds. A fairly preternatural morality tale about redemption with a surprisingly non-linear structure involving a number of flashbacks (and even flashbacks-within-flashbacks) that depicts a literal daunting date with death that a drunkard must take on one rather auspicious New Year's Eve to learn the error of his way so that he can reform and, in turn, safe his family before it is too late, Sjöström’s penetratingly phantasmagorical flick is probably the only ghost story where man in his natural habitat is more horrifying than the gothic supernatural elements.  Additionally, you will not find a more effortlessly artful or aesthetically refined cinematic depiction of alcoholism and I say that as one of the few people that has probably seen Ermanno Olmi's underrated alcoholic odyssey La leggenda del santo bevitore (1988) aka The Legend of the Holy Drinker starring Rutger Hauer.

 Undoubtedly, one of the most poignant things that I personally took away from The Phantom Carriage is that it made me become more aware of the fact that I have been, mostly subconsciously, haunted by alcoholics for almost my entire life. Indeed, while I have thankfully never had the misfortune of having alcoholic parents, the three most important women in my life were the daughters of pathetic boozers. While I have met two of these men, it is, somewhat ironically, the one that I have never met that has haunted me the most, so naturally I was somewhat startled when I first watched Sjöström’s film and discovered that the quasi-antihero bears a striking resemblance to this man in both appearance and character. A smart and charismatic yet oftentimes savagely sadistic bastard that prefers hanging out with his wino buddies at a sleazy bar to spending time with his family, the lead character's behavior so closely mirrors the description that the woman in my life constantly gave of her own father to such a startling degree that it almost felt like the film was an occult form of déjà vu and specially made for me as a form of esoteric art therapy.   Undoubtedly, watching Sjöström’s cinematic masterpiece is probably the closest I will ever come to meeting the miserable man that unleashed so much senseless trauma on the woman I loved.  In that sense, I found the film's hopeful conclusion to be somewhat contrived and its greatest weakness, as the abusive alcoholic can never make up for all the pain and suffering he has caused, even if he has accomplished the seemingly impossible task of getting completely sober as internal scars are forever.

Naturally, as a film with a alcoholic lead, one of the major themes of The Phantom Carriage is how an unrepentant drunkard negatively affects his friends and family. In short, I have never felt so haunted by a film, especially one that oftentimes takes place in haunts where dipsomaniacs act like boorish buffoons and beat the shit out of each other for the most trivial reasons. While the film was made nearly a century ago, it ultimately makes a relatively modern alcoholic film like Leaving Las Vegas (1995) directed by Mike Figgis seem like a slapstick comedy by comparison in terms of sincerely expressing the spiritual sickness, emotional decrepitude, and psychological depravity that comes with alcoholism. Likewise, the short American ‘silent sermon’ from around the same era, Episodes In The Life Of A Gin Bottle (1925) directed by Bela von Block, seems like something on par with Louis J. Gasnier’s Reefer Madness (1936) in terms of being an unintentional joke at the expense at its anti-substance-abuse message. Of course, one expects a certain degree of singular artistic prowess from a film that was such a huge influence on a master auteur like Ingmar Bergman that he hired its star-auteur to star in his own films. In fact, Bergman was so obsessed with The Phantom Carriage that he directed a TV-movie entitled Bildmakarna (2000) aka The Image Makers based on auteur Sjöström and writer Selma Lagerlöf’s collaboration on the film. 

 Despite technically being a ‘horror’ film, The Phantom Carriage—a cinematic work that is certainly not a slave to genre conventions—begins in a somewhat melodramatic, if not downright histrionic, fashion on a somewhat morbid New Year's Eve night with a tragically beauteous Salvation Army sister, ‘Edit’ (Astrid Holm), pleading on her deathbed to her fellow Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm) that she receive one final wish involving a final meeting with a drunken bum named David Holm (Victor Sjöström), who is not even worthy of shining the gorgeous god gal's shoes. Indeed, as depicted later in the film in a flashback, Sister Edit made David promise to meet her on the following New Year's Eve in the somewhat spiritually delusional hope that he would have a “good year” despite his self-destructive alcoholic ways.  Although the year is technically not over yet, David—a belligerent bastard that has a nasty knack for making everyone around him just as miserable as he is—has had a rather horrendous 364 days of self-induced misery and depravity as a result of his rather aggressive alcoholism, which has destroyed his entire family and left him a lonely gutter-dwelling bum who is only tolerated by other similarly hopelessly debauched gutter-dwelling bums. Unbeknownst to dastardly dickhead David, he is unwittingly responsible for Sister Edit being on her deathbed as she contracted tuberculosis last New Year's Eve as a result of committing the selfless act of touching his dirty jacket so as to clean and repair it.  Indeed, while David was sleeping at the local Salvation Army center the year before, Sister Edit took it upon herself to mend the jacket for the protagonist and he repaid her kindness by destroying her fine stitch work right in front of her face and then stating in a sadistically sarcastic fashion, “It’s a shame you went to all that trouble, Miss, but I’m used to have it like this.” Although David ultimately agreed to visit Edit the next New Year’s Eve, he had less than savory reasons, or as he snidely remarked to the poor sister, “Oh, I’ll be there. I’ll come to show you God didn’t give a fig for you or your twaddle.” Of course, being a typical unreliable drunkard that cannot even bother to remember to take a daily shower, David fails to show up and when Edit’s colleague Gustafsson (Tor Weijden) goes out looking for him and finally finds him, the prick protagonist refuses to honor the poor sister’s last dying wish and instead focuses on getting all the more hammered with his friends in a spooky graveyard. Somewhat ironically, it is only when David himself comes face to face with death that very same night that he desperately wants to speak to Edit and atone for his past wrongs. 

 While Edit is praying for his arrival as she slowly but surely succumbs to her sickness, David is getting wasted with his friends in a graveyard and telling them about a local legend that was once told to him by an old scholar friend named Georges (Tore Svennberg) who was deathly afraid of being the last person to die on New Year’s Eve because he believed his own story that the person in question would be foredoomed to drive Death's ghostly carriage and collect the souls of every single individual that dies the following year. Rather ironically, Georges was the last person to die the previous year and David soon discovers that his old comrade has taken up the unwanted supernatural position of the local Grim Reaper. In fact, not long after telling the story, David is accidentally killed just before the clock strikes twelve after one of his boozer buddies hits him over the head with a bottle during a heated drunken brawl. Indeed, when David wakes up from the deadly blow, he is somewhat baffled to discover that his soul has exited his body and that he is being confronted by Georges and the phantom carriage.

With the creepily dispassionate help of his ghostly friend, David is forced to confront all the evil that he has sired during his mostly pathetic lifetime in a series of pivotal flashback scenes. While originally a happy and loving family man with a decent job at a local sawmill who spent his free time joyously playing with his children in the scenic countryside, David more or less completely destroyed his entire life overnight after becoming a full-time drunkard, which eventually led to the loss of both his job and family.  Naturally, David caused much familial collateral damage in the process, though he was mostly too drunk to notice. Developing an almost demonically depraved alter-ego as a result of his dipsomania, David eventually began to derive an almost sadistic glee from abusing his family, hence why his wife Ann (Hilda Borgström) eventually absconded to another town to get away from her aggressively assholish hubby.  Needless to say, like most bitterly resentful drunk bastards with nothing left to lose, David refused to take responsibility for his own actions and thus was not about to let his wife get away freely.

 Notably, the final straw that inspired Ann to leave was David turning his own younger brother into such a bad drunkard that he accidentally killed someone during a brawl. Needless to say, David is wholly deserving of the karmic fate of eventually dying the same way as his brother’s victim, but luckily for the protagonist, The Phantom Carriage, quite unlike Rainer Werner Fassbinder's early Sirkian masterpiece Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (1971) aka The Merchant of Four Seasons, is a strangely optimistic film about the power of redemption where it is argued that even the most devilishly debauched of haunt-haunting troglodytes can embrace teetotalism and dedicate their lives to wholesome good instead of gutter-level beer-chugging bacchanalian buffoonery. Indeed, it is only when David hits literal rock bottom in the form of an ancient tomb where his lifeless body collapses after being fatally struck with a bottle that he begins to see the error of his ways. Thankfully for David, his suicidal wife is masochistic enough to give him one more final chance in the end. Rather revealingly, David—a man that has already been given a number of recklessly misspent second chances—is only able to convince his wife of his sincerity in regard to wanting to change because he sobs hysterically during a moment of sort of transcendental meekness, or as Ann states to him herself, “It is hard to believe, David, but I do believe you. Your tears convinced me. I won’t truly be happy until my sorrow is drained.” Repeating something his undead friend Georges said to him earlier in the film during a philosophically insightful supernatural carriage ride, David concludes the film by stating while his wife Ann is lovingly resting her head in his lap, “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped,” thus underscoring one of the most important themes of the entire film.  Just as the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung theorized after decades of dealing with numerous hopeless alcoholics, the film ultimately reveals that alcoholism is more of a spiritual sickness than a social or biological disease, hence the importance of David's date with death.

 Notably, Aryan Christ Jung was an important philosophical influence on the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) due his promotion of theory that certain hardcore alcoholics would never be able to completely quit the booze unless they had a life-changing “spiritual experience,” as he believed that the addiction had more to do with a certain void in the soul than a simpler hopeless thirst for alcohol.  Indeed, as Jung wrote in a 1961 letter to Alcoholic Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, “You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”  Notably, Avon Products heir Conrad Rooks was only able to get over his terrible alcoholism and substance abuse via a sort of spiritual reawakening, which he would depict in his hermetic counterculture flick Chappaqua (1967). Undoubtedly, judging by his masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, Victor Sjöström seems to have a similar theory to Jung in regard to the metaphysical roots of alcoholism.  In that sense, supernatural horror is in many ways the perfect genre for tackling the subject of the misery of methomania.  Aside from his masterful direction, Sjöström’s performance as the extremely emotionally erratic alcoholic lead is among the greatest, if not the greatest, in cinema history, especially when compared to unintentionally hilarious displays of demented dipsomania like Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Undoubtedly, Figgis' film seems like Bobcat Goldthwait's decidedly dumb Shakes the Clown (1991) in terms of depicting the nuances of dipsomania when compared to the brilliance of Sjöström's silent masterwork.  In terms of sheer pathos and sensitivity towards the drunkenly insensitive, I can only really compare Sjöström's film to Paul Schrader's fairly underrated Affliction (1997).

Notably, in the essay Phantom Forms: The Phantom Carriage by screenwriter and Nicholas Roeg collaborator Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Croupier) speculates that Sjöström’s performance was influenced by his own much despised womanizer and defrauder father Olof Adolf Sjöström who he apparently closely resembled in physical appearance. Indeed, the film might have been based on a work by Selma Lagerlöf, who Sjöström apparently constantly quarreled with during the production, but it has an undeniable highly personalized quality to it, as if the auteur used his performance to perform a sort of personal exorcism from all the metaphysical pain and suffering that his prick padre caused him.  Throughout the film, Sjöström seems possessed by an almost demonic drunken rage that is quite disturbing in its seeming authenticity, so I do not doubt the auteur was using the role as personal therapy for past traumas.

 I think it is safe to say that Swedish master auteur Ingmar Bergman, who would cast his cinematic hero Sjöström in both his early work Till glädje (1950) aka To Joy and masterpiece Smultronstället (1957) aka Wild Strawberries, probably paid the film and its auteur-cum-star its greatest compliment when he stated in the documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait (1981) directed by Gösta Werner, “My encounters with Victor Sjöström—at first, by way of his films, and later on, when I met him in person—these encounters affected me deeply. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE was an early encounter. It completely overwhelmed me. I was shaken to the core by the movie. Not necessarily because I understood it, but quite simply, it affected me . . . by way of its incredible cinematic power. For me, it was an all-encompassing emotional experience. Certain sequences and images have left an indelible impression.” Undoubtedly, anyone familiar with Bergman’s singular oeuvre can easily see how Sjöström’s film had such an imperative influence on the younger filmmaker. Indeed, the influence is so great that it is comparable to Douglas Sirk’s influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Alfred Hitchcock’s on Brian De Palma in terms of the latter’s films being somewhat unimaginable without the influence of the former. From the obsession with iconic “sculpted close-ups” to signature depictions of Death personified, Bergman can certainly be described as a hopeless Sjöströmian who, rather deservingly, eventually transcended his master in terms of fame and influence. Rather absurdly yet not altogether surprisingly considering the oftentimes hyper self-critical nature of many great artists, Sjöström apparently thought little of his own great cinematic masterpieces, or as Bergman recounted in The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography (1987), “He had never thought GIVE US THIS DAY, THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE or HE WHO GETS SLAPPED were especially remarkable. He mostly saw the failings and was annoyed by his own sloppiness and lack of skill.” Incidentally, in the same book, Bergman explains how he filled Sjöström with “senile anger” during the shooting of Wild Strawberries for failing to provide him whisky that he had promised.  Aside from Bergman, The Phantom Carriage seems to have also been a crucial influence on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), most obviously in regard to the famous scene where a demented Jack Nicholson breaks down a door with an axe in a manner quite like Sjöström's character in his silent horror masterpiece.

 Notably, in his classic novel The Long Goodbye (1953)—a work that Robert Altman wonderfully cinematically adapted in 1973—Raymond Chandler, himself a terrible drunk, wrote, “A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can't predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.” Undoubtedly, The Phantom Carriage certainly expresses Chandler’s sentiment in its depiction of the unpredictably unhinged behavior of the protagonist while he is drunk. Even more relevant to the film than Chandler’s quote is an excerpt from the anti-alcoholic Alcoholics Anonymous tome The Big Book by Bill Wilson that reads, “As we became subjects of King Alcohol, shivering denizens of his mad realm, the chilling vapor that is loneliness settled down. It thickened, ever becoming blacker. Some of us sought out sordid places, hoping to find understanding companionship and approval. Momentarily we did—then would come oblivion and the awful awakening to face the hideous Four Horsemen—Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair.” Indeed, The Phantom Carriage not only offers a delectably hallucinatory cinematic cocktail of terror, bewilderment, frustration, and despair, but also a stoically humanistic depiction of alcoholism that does not seem like it was created by some self-important ‘self-help’ leftist phony. In that sense, the film is like a Nordic arthouse proto-The Twilight Zone on Gothic Dickensian LSD in terms of being a phantasmagoric horror movie with a moral ending.

Undoubtedly, when poet and avant-garde filmmaker James Broughton wrote his collection of cinema aphorisms Some Fruits of Experience, he was perfectly describing the aesthetic prowess and importance of a film like Sjöström's as indicated by words of cinematic wisdom like, “Cinema is a lie which makes us realize a truth” and “Movie images are dim reflections of the beauty and ferocity in mankind.”  After all, The Phantom Carriage forced me to confront dipsomaniacal phantoms that have, in various ways, haunted my own life yet it also managed to provide me with a deceptively narcotizing experience that reminded me of the singularity of cinema as an artform. To go back to Broughton, his poetical film book Making Light of It (1992) features a quote from the pseudonymous Early German Romantic poet, mystic, and philosopher Novalis that reads, “The seat of the soul is where the outer and inner worlds meet.” Of course, the titular ghostly carriage in Sjöström's film is undoubtedly a morbid poetic symbolic reflection of the “seat of the soul” that Novalis spoke of.  While he would have never admitted it himself, Sjöström was not only a great actor and auteur, but also a closet poet as indicated by The Phantom Carriage—the ultimate cinematic marriage between methomania and the macabre—and great later works like the fairly idiosyncratic silent western The Wind (1928) starring Lillian Gish.  I certainly like to think Sjöström's masterpiece is set in a world that Edgar Allan Poe might have dreamed up (and/or inhabited), as I can certainly see Death's carriage strolling the streets of Baltimore for him on the night of October 7, 1849 after he died a dubious alcohol-related death.

-Ty E


Anonymous said...

Incredible to realise that when this film was made Poe had already been gone for 70 years.

David Sanction said...

Happy Halloween Ty E, have a great time my old mate. BTW, it would`ve been great to see a classic horror movie reveiwed here today but alas you`ve become far too highbrow and elitist for that now.