Friday 31 December 2010

Körkarlen The Phantom Carriage of New Year's Eve

Nothing like a good horror story to cheer you up for the New Year. After seeing Victor Sjöström's Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage), first screened 1/1/1921 anything will seem joyous. Even the Salvation Army comes over sexy. Can you miss this?

Sister Edit, a sturdy-looking maiden is dying on New Year's Eve. She has one last wish, to see David Holm. He refuses to come. His wife runs in, kissing the girl's hand. What's going on? Cut to David Holm and his drunken mates, carousing in the graveyard. Last year their pal George died on the stroke of midnight. "George went to university at Uppsala" says David, "He knows things". But still ended up a bum.

The men fight, and on the stroke of midnight, David falls over and cracks his head. Up draws a rickety old carriage pulled by a wasted nag. It's George. "Whoever dies in sin at midnight must harvest souls for a year". The Grim Reaper takes David on his rounds.

In the photo, notice the use of double images to create a ghostly effect. That's David's dead body there. This film was made during 1920, so the technique was brand-new, hauntingly atmospheric. In the current DVD restoration, the soundtrack is fantastic. Hollow, metallic sounds like a slowed heartbeat, or the ticking of a clock that isn't right. This is a soundtrack that actually follows the action. It skips a beat when David jumps. Wonderful atmospheric scenes of the phantom carriage harvesting souls on land and sea and in the sky, collecting the souls of rich and poor. Extremely beautiful in its own eerie way, like abstract art. "A moment here is like a hundred years on earth" says the Grim Reaper.

David was once in a a happy family but he took to Demon Drink. His wife ran away with the kids, his brother was led astray. Enraged, David hunts for ex-wife threatening to kill her. Exhausted, he collapses outside a brand new Salvation Army Hostel on New Year's Eve. He's taken in by idealistic Sister Edit who spends all night mending his shabby coat. Since he's the first guest, she pledges herself for a year towards saving him, parallel with the idea of last person dead being forced to collect souls. Both a kinky kind of penitence. Very subtly, the film hints that Edit's sexually attracted to David (played by the director Victor Sjöström himself). He looks too much like a hunk to be consumptive, but that's why he's dangerous. He delights in coughing on people so they will get TB too. And so he transmits it to Edit.

Meanwhile Edit bullies Mrs Holm into taking him back. But David hasn't mended his ways and threatens to kill her and the kids, so terrified, she runs off again. Still, Edit can't die until she's done her duty by David. She argues with the Grim Reaper, forcing him to give David one more chance to reform. They stops outside a slum. "Who is dying here?" asks David. The men enter, (invisibly, of course). Mrs Holm is preparing to kill the kids and commit suicide because she's lost hope. At last, David is moved enough to repent his wicked ways. And Mrs Holm takes him back and they all live happily ever after, as Edit's given her soul for David. (She's collected by "the other ones" ie angels, ventures the Grim Reaper.) If this sounds sentimental, do not worry, it's not  Acting is exceptionally natural, especially for the period. Sjöström as David Holm is full of life and vigour (which is why Edit fixates on him).  

Körkarlen is nothing like the silent films of the era. Instead it achieves its effects by subtle atmospheric plays of light and shadow and double images which move and realign so smoothly you almost forget what's real and what isn't.

The original novel, by Selma Lagerlöf (another of these progressive Scandinavian and Finnish feminist authors) is apparently more into social issues like drink, TB and slum control via The Salvation Army, all perfectly valid in an era before penicillin and social security, Sjöström however is working in a completely new medium, with completely new ideas.  Elsewhere they're filming The Keystone Cops. Sjöström's doing  a psychological study and high art. The supernatural effects to enhance the unstable balance between inner and outer reality, so they express what the characters can't. .As they're riding along, the Grim Reaper says to David, "If there's one thing I could tell people, it would be to hope their lives reach maturity before they are felled". In other words, to learn wisdom and goodness before it's too late. It's not Salvation Army hell, brimstone and hard living, but basic good sense. Not at all a depressing movie, despite the subject.

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