Once upon a time, on New Year’s Eve, three men sit in a dilapidated cemetery passing a bottle of cheap liquor back and forth while talking about a local legend: that of Death’s Driver. According to the prevailing myth, the last person killed on New Year’s Eve must take over the reins of a horse-drawn carriage fashioned by Death himself. For the next year, that person must serve Death by collecting the souls of the recently deceased until the following New Year’s Eve. Inevitably (at least according to the logic of fairy tales), our protagonist, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well named David Holm (played by the film’s director, Victor Sjöström), is accidentally murdered just before the stroke of midnight. Then comes Death’s Driver, who just so happens to be a fellow derelict named Georges (Tore Svennberg), the man who first told Holm about the legend. Georges died exactly a year before in Holm’s presence under very similar circumstances. (As in all fairy tales, coincidence and fate play a crucial role in this film.) Georges removes Holm from his physical body, binds his astral body hand and foot with rope, and leads him on a soul-searing journey through the world of the living, forcing Holm to confront the consequences of his misspent life in a sermonizing manner that might remind one of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), but The Phantom Carriage lacks all of the sentimentalism so integral to Dickens’ far more famous novel.
I’ve recently completed a rather lengthy article about this film for a forthcoming anthology about Expressionism edited by film scholar Gary D. Rhodes for Edinburgh University Press. The article, nearly 10,000 words long, is entitled “Here Among the Dead: The Phantom Carriage and the Cinema of the Occulted Taboo." When I learn more details about the publication date of the anthology, I’ll be sure to pass it along. In the meantime, get your hands on the digitally restored Blu-ray/DVD of The Phantom Carriage, released by Criterion in the Fall of 2011, and watch Sjöström’s groundbreaking phantasmagoria as the clock strikes twelve….