The Phantom Carriage – A Ghost Story

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On 18 May 1920, filming of Swedish silent Movie The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen in original) began. It was finished in the end of July the same year, and finally premiered on New Years Day 1921. In 2012 the film, even though being a silent movie, was voted the best Swedish film all times by the film magazine FLM. The Phantom Carriage is difficult to classify, but as it includes supernatural scenes it would seem easiest to classify it as a ghost/horror story, but as we shall see it also revolves around social problems such as poverty and alcholism. The film iteself also made a huge impact on directors such as Ingemar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick, who ripped off a scene from The Phantom Carriage when filming The Shining (1980).

Based on the novel Körkarlen by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (see photo below), director Victor Sjöström began filming in mid-May 1920 at the Swedish Film Institute’s studios in Stockholm. At first, the outdoor scenes were supposed to be filmed on location in the South of Sweden in the city Landskrona, but as Sjöström were going to make extensive use of special effects, filming had to be located to a studio environment.

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Victor Sjöström did not only direct the film, he also co-wrote the screenplay with Selma Lagerlöf and played the lead character, David Holm. David is a violent alcoholic who, when the film begins, on New Years Eve sits with a couple of drunken friends telling a ghost story about his friend Georges, who had feared Death but had died himself the previous New Years Night. David also tells his friends that the one who dies first on the New Year must take up the horrid position as Reaper for one year. At the same time the poor slum worker Edit (played by Astrid Holm) lies dying in her bed, and her last wish is to talk to David. Word is sent for David, but when he recives the message he refuses to go see Edit. His drunkard friends tries to force him to go to Edit and a fight between the men breaks out, whereas David is killed. Suddenly, on the stroke of midnight, the Phantom Carriage appears and at the same time Davids spirit rises from the dead body. The carriage is driven by David’s old friend Georges, who takes David along memory lane, showing him how he had transformed from a loving, caring husband and father to a violent thug, who even threatened to kill his family using an axe.

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Even though filming ended in late July 1920, The Phantom Carriage would not premiere untill New Years Day 1921. Post-production was very difficult because of Sjöström’s extensive use of special effects, like double exposures, allowing the ghost bodies of David and Georges go through walls and be seen through. The biggest problem was that cameras were manually operated,meaning that the second camera capturing the “ghost characters” had to be moved at exactly the same speed as the first camera that had captured the environment settings. The result was however stunning, and the technique was rapidly spread allowing directors to create stunning special effects of their own.

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Even Stanley Kubrick became inspired by a scene first shown in The Phantom Carriage. In a Flashback, David Holm suffers from a fit of rage. When getting out of jail, he finds that his wife Anna (played by Hilda Borgström) finally has had enough of his behaviour and left him, taking their Children with her. David finds where they are staying and breaks through the locked door to the room where his family is hiding in fear. The scene was copied by Kubrick in The Shining (1980) when mentally broken Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, uses an axe to break through a door to kill his family.

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Swedish director Ingemar Bergman also was very impressed by The Phantom Carriage and the pioneering work of director Victor Sjöström (see photo below). Bergman, for example, used references to the film when shooting The Seventh Seal (1957), and he also paid homage to Victor Sjöström by casting him in the lead role as Professor Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries (1957). The Phantom Carriage was indeed a ground breaking film. It has influenced many directors through time and it will most likely continue influence directors and filmmakers in the future as well.

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