In 1921, only dedicated but small groups of filmmakers and intellectuals believed that cinema could be considered an art form. For film’s defenders, though, it was an exciting time: two years before, Viennese director Robert Wiene had released The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a film that both borrowed heavily from the movement in the visual arts known as expressionism and, with its flights of heightened, hallucinatory vision, promised a new future of purely cinematic art. The Caligari sensation helped spur filmmakers across Europe into making movies that emphasized otherworldly visions, moody atmosphere, impossible events, and allegorical meaning.
Swedish director Victor Sjöström was already established as a film director in his native land, but it surely is no coincidence that The Phantom Carriage, his own oneiric film about mortality, came in the wake of Caligari. In the film, an alcoholic named David Holm [played by Sjöström] dies at the stroke of 12 on New Year’s Eve and, like all who die in the last moments of a year, must now serve as Death’s vassal, driving the titular ghostly carriage and collecting souls. With its use of cinematic special-effects like double exposure to create phantomic visions and its numerous nested stories-within-stories, it would seem to have been produced under the sway of Caligarismus, or “Caligarism.”
But The Phantom Carriage transcends its more well-known German cousin: a triumph of film style and direction, it crafts a story that, rather than frightening and sensational, is by turns unnerving and poignant. Rather than subsuming its characters under an overwhelming, almost oppressive “expressionist” film set, it is more reserved, more naturalistic. The images that leave the most immediate impression are those that evoke the specter of Death—here figured almost allegorically as a translucent, cinematic apparition—driving his sleepy carriage toward us all. However, the most indelible emotional impact comes from the performances by Sjöström and lead actresses Hilda Borgström and Astrid Holm. Although he rarely uses a close-up, Sjöström’s mastery of composition and editing leads us to feel along with the characters their joy, anger, remorse, and pity.
The horror movie as we know it did not exist in 1921. In Germany, Caligari’s success inaugurated the postwar era of so-called German Expressionist film—among other things, the immediate precursor to what we, today, think of as the horror film. To a contemporary American audience, despite its oft-gloomy atmosphere, The Phantom Carriage resembles nothing more than a Christmas movie in the tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life. The bulk of the movie consists of the memories of the main character David Holm—how he has failed to care for and appreciate his family, how he has mistreated and disappointed those around him.
It’s a Wonderful Life has made this kind of moral self-evaluation typical of the holiday movie, but in context, The Phantom Carriage has much more in common with the progenitors of the horror film. Later the same year, Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece Destiny [in German, called “Weary Death”] was released. In that film, after Death settles down on the outskirts of a German village, a woman’s fiance dies suddenly. Appealing to Death in the Stygian tower he has constructed, she begs for her fiance’s life, and Death agrees, on the condition that, transported into three different stories of doomed lovers, she can save the man’s life in any one of them. Ultimately, the woman fails, forced to accept the reality and inevitability of death—and to live accordingly.
Whatever else they are, and whatever else they can do, horror films have roots in questions of death and life, whether they’re evoking the horror of grisly death or prodding the boundaries between the living and the dead, the present and the absent—as in ghost films and in these original gloom-fests. Films like Caligari, Destiny, and The Phantom Carriage remind us of the extent to which serious questions around death were on the mind of Europe and its filmmakers in the wake of WWI. The Phantom Carriage also reminds us that a film can be both creepy and profoundly empathetic, both dark and caring.