At one point in Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, we see enacted a ghost story about the titular carriage—which goes around picking up the souls of the dead—as told by an old man in a tavern, as remembered by a drunk, retelling the story to his drinking companions in a cemetery. This nested story in a nested story is not a unique moment in the film. Significant sections of the narrative take place in flashback. The story jumps back in time, then comes back to the present, then jumps further back in time before creeping its way back to the present again. The film handles these transitions with remarkable ease, keeping the viewer in tune with the storyline despite working in a medium only a few decades old at the time and without the benefit of sound. The techniques it uses to accomplish this make the film something of a masterclass in visual storytelling and, certainly, prove that it was far ahead of its time.
Technically, it is hard to pinpoint an area what The Phantom Carriage is not remarkable. It’s lighting is naturalistic but still affecting. There are a few especially remarkable shots, such as when the Salvation Army nurse, Maria, sits down at a table after a long night of working. She is artfully backlit, as if revealing to us as the audience her inner glow, but the effect is subtle, without overwhelming the balance of the rest of the shot. Equally impressive is the use of background and foreground space. When David Holm, the troubled soul at the center of the film, is getting drunk at a bar with his friends, the space buzzes around him, with barmaids getting drinks in the background while David and his friends sit close to us in the center of his frame. It is similar to Ozu’s square framing and use of depth and, even if half a world apart, there is clearly a similar aesthetic. Where they differ, though, is in their pacing. While Ozu would deliberately draw the rhythm out and let each shot breath, The Phantom Carriage is remarkably easy to watch for a modern viewer because it is so well edited. There is shooting coverage so that the scene can move from wide to medium shot and, occasionally, even singles, giving each scene a fluid dynamic not always felt in silent films. Additionally, more than once the film cuts to “turn around” the camera, showing us a reverse side of the scene, something especially rare in earlier films when so often directors were used to working in a stage medium where the reverse side of a scene was the audience sitting there.
What elevates the use of these tools beyond mere technical expertise is their use in the story. The Phantom Carriage is, ultimately, the story of the evolution of a soul. We see the soul of David Holm, a drunken man, as corrupted. The film portrays this stereotype for us and then slowly unravels it. We learn about David’s past—how he had a happy family, how he took to drink and lost his family, how his shame and fear prevented him from being able to repent for these things, and asks whether his salvation will be able to come or if it is already too late.
It is an emotional journey and to tell the story the film has to get close. It needs to be able to set the scene for us and then cut into a close up, so we can see David’s anger when he tears apart his mended jacket, shirking off the only kindness yet offered to him, or to see his fear and horror when he learns the cost of his drunken night out. It needs to be able to edit adroitly to see the ironic dynamic as the nurse Maria begs for one more night of life to try to save David’s soul meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, his ghost crouches at her bedside, aghast at the situation he pushed himself away from. It needs its gentle lighting to draw out the complex emotions of its characters.
Ultimately, because of its technical prowess, The Phantom Carriage is able to tell the complex story it does—not reducing its characters to mere stereotypes, not forcing the emotional narrative of the story to adhere to the chronological timeline, allow the acting to be artless and relatable. If the film is less well-known than some other silent classics—from D. W. Griffith’s oeuvre to Murnau’s Sunrise—it is not because it falls short of those films but because it avoids showing off. Its skills are humbly held in service to the story.