New Year’s Eve is deemed as the one poignant day upon which humankind bestows great introspection and reflection on the past year in perspective of their life thus far. “What have I accomplished?” “How have I changed?” “Am I truly ‘one year older and wiser’?” “What does my future hold?” These are a small sample of the questions we may ponder on this day. Many celebrate the fresh hope and opportunity that arise from self-analysis, while others may unfortunately be left feeling despondent. The Phantom Carriage is a 1921 Swedish silent film directed by Victor Sjostrom displaying the extreme ends of this pendulum of thought taking place near the midnight hour of this very fateful day of contemplation.
Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) is a highly benevolent yet naive worker of the Salvation Army who is sadly near death due to tuberculosis. During the greatest depths of her illness on New Year’s Eve, she asks her mother (Concordia Selander) and dear friend Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm) for a man named David Holm (Victor Sjostrom) to visit her. Before meeting this character, a sentiment of disdain and anger has already cultivated towards him. Upon meeting him, the contempt harboured towards him seems quite justified. He is also completely ignorant to the cautionary tale his friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) had told him about “The Phantom Carriage”. The very last person who dies on New Year’s Eve must drive the carriage, and they must also be at all costs obedient to Death itself. Little did Mr. Holm know that he would meet that fate and be greeted by a dear friend who, as in similar fashion to Jacob Marley, prompts ample pause for the “maturity of the soul” through past events, behaviours, and untimely consequences.
I would be amiss if I did not discuss the technical brilliance of this film. I cannot imagine that double exposure techniques were frequently developed in film at the time. This is absolutely central in increasing the effectiveness of telling this particular story. Furthermore, I found the tones of the images were interesting with brown being representative of indoor settings and blue of outdoors. Neither colour is particularly warm, potentially symbolizing the false sense of shelter in which Holm has enveloped himself. Furthermore, several images in this film have been highly influential in shaping the structure of The Seventh Seal and The Shining, two of the most iconic films in cinematic history in my opinion.
The Phantom Carriage itself is a burden to the lost spirits who have to carry its weight for a full year. However, it is also a symbol for the spiritual and emotional strain that many drag with them on a daily basis. Many of our actions and thoughts are resultant of fear, contempt, and anger. In other words, they are reactionary to the lack of core vitality and humanity necessary to achieving wholeness and true presence. Decency, kindness, and compassion embody the true human condition. Overall, this film does an exemplary job in reminding viewers of the importance of responsibility, love, and respect as integral aspects of our functioning. Grief for former possibilities can be devastating upon the realization of their potential.