of spectres and spectatorship

Phantom Carriage Banner

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) (1921, Sweden, Sjöström) had a lot to live up to, both critically (it is reportedly one Ingmar Bergman’s formative filmmaking influences) and in regards to enthusiastic recommendations from friends, and I’m happy to report that it managed to even surpass expectations. Which is not to say that it was really at all what I expected–I thought I was in for some eerie atmospherics a la Dreyer’s Vampyr, which means I was not at all anticipating the emphasis placed on Griffith-esque domestic melodramatics, complete with a Lillian Gish lookalike (perhaps not so much in a physical sense, but more in the way the camera venerates her, creating an ethereal, haloed quality I associate with Gish’s silent films).

And while the roving carriage of the title allows for a striking and much-celebrated sequence involving an intricate use of superimposition that remains truly eerie, it is counterpointed by intimate candlelit interior scenes where several phantom carriage imageintersecting storylines play themselves out in a heartbreaking manner. This film dares to plumb some truly horrific psychic spaces, and there were point in the final third that I was getting so emotionally riled up that I was honestly considering shutting it off and return later in a more composed mental state. I stuck it out, but only out of consideration for viewing companions. The finale, which ties everything up in a neat didactic bow, is a an inevitably letdown, but can’t detract from the fact that this is surely one of the great achievements of the silent era, and its nice to see that it is finally getting its due, thanks to its (relatively) recent release on the Criterion Collection (Home Video Projected Blu-ray).

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