Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Upon a Pale Horse

Film: Korkarlen (The Phantom Carriage)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

There’s something special about a ghost story. There’s no way to tell if spook tales are the earliest form of storytelling, but it wouldn’t shock me if they were. Human beings like to find meaning and cause for events, and many of us—particularly in the days before the scientific method—determine anything unexplainable as coming from supernatural sources. Ghost stories are a part of every culture. It does not surprise me that several of the earliest films on this list are ventures into the world beyond this one.

Korkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, and not “George Carlin” as I’ve been calling it in my own head) is a morality tale of death and redemption, punishment and penance. On top of that, it’s also one of the earliest forays into filmed special effects—particularly double exposures and ghostly images overlaid one on the other.

We begin on New Year’s Eve with Edit (Astrid Holm), a young woman who has spent her life working with the Salvation Army. Edit is dying of “galloping consumption” and demands to see David Holm before her time is up. This causes some consternation amongst those attending her, but a friend goes out dutifully to find Holm and bring him back. We also meet Holm (director Victor Sjostrom), a dissolute drunkard.

Holm tells us of a legend he learned from his friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) the previous year. According to Georges, whomever is the last person to die in a given year becomes the servant of Death for the following year, driving around the ghostly carriage of the title and collecting the souls of all those who have passed until the year is up and a new servant takes the last servant’s place. Naturally, Georges dies on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, which according to the tale means that he will become the new driver of Death.

Since this is a film, we can expect things to happen according to the necessary plot. Holm himself is killed at the stroke of midnight on this New Year’s Eve and discovers that Georges’s tale was the truth. In fact, it is Georges who comes for him. The bulk of the film from this point forward is a sort of Swedish version of “A Christmas Carol” as we learn of the dissolution that Holm has fallen into and the pain and misery he caused to those around him, particularly his wife and children, who he has abandoned.

Like all silent films, Korkarlen requires the correct mindset to view properly. It would be simple to see the equivalent of the strings and pass this off as amateurish. But that doesn’t give the film, or Sjostrom, their proper due. This is an inventive tale and an inventive film for a number of reasons. One that I was particularly taken with is the way that the story unfolds. Many a silent film slams its viewers over the head with exposition in the opening minutes, pounding the poor viewer with title card after title card so that the audience can be sure of the story.

Not so here. While we learn of the tale of Death’s carriage early on, we know virtually nothing about Holm and his story, or his connection to Sister Edit until much later in the film. Instead, we must learn of these connections as we go long, discovering the meaning of Edit’s desire to see this wretched man once the film is half over. It requires its viewer to stay attentive to the entire narrative, because each piece becomes important to the understanding of everything.

Like all silent film, Korkarlen is stylized and contains the sort of melodrama that only a silent film can manufacture. And yet, for all its otherworldly trappings and potential for wild overacting, the film is actually quite understated.

It’s also pretty coherent and efficient in its storytelling. We discover the story of Holm when Georges comes for his spirit. We see Holm with his family. We see Holm with his family enjoying a picnic. We then see Holm, Georges, and another drunk sitting in the same spot having an alcohol-infused party. Holm drags everyone around him into depravity and desperation, something effectively demonstrated with almost no title cards in a relatively short sequence.

It’s not a perfect film, of course. While the montage in the middle that explains the life and decline of Holm is quite effective, at other times, the film goes too long between titles and shows us little but people standing around looking at each other. It’s one of those conventions of silent film that didn’t carry over much into the talkie era, and it makes this difficult to take in places.

Why to watch Korkarlen: Surprisingly effective horror elements from a film that is so rudimentary by modern standards.
Why not to watch: So many umlauts in the Swedish titles.


  1. Interesting thoughts on the origin of ghost stories.

    From an evolutionary perspective, it could be argued that story telling may have started out as simply a way to make friends, find mates, and garner cooperation for food and resource gathering. But I think you're correct in noting that "ghost stories" probably did begin pretty early on - to explain unexplainable events such as death, sickness, etc., Very interesting.

    As for the movie, I too was pleasantly surprised by how this story unfolded. It is one of the earliest examples i've seen of a movie which keeps its audience in the dark - so to speak - slowly revealing the mystery in a manner which, as you say, requires a good deal of attention to fully comprehend. And it's certainly one of the more entertaining films of the silent era despite the "umlauts" ;)

  2. Güys, whät ïs thë problëm wïth thë umlauts? I dön't ündërständ.

    Like you my first viewing of this was from the internet with far from perfect video. I was happy when TCM scheduled it, allowing me to see it again with far better picture quality.

    Victor Sjöström was drawn into the Hollywood machine where he released many films. Thanks to TCM, I have seen "He Who Get's Slapped" with Lon Chaney, "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Wind" both with Lillian Gish. All that I consider to be SUPERIOR Hollywood silent films, though not necessarily better then "The Phantom Carriage".

  3. @Klaus--the fact that the story is revealed through a much more mature use of exposition is one of the things I found so appealing about this film. Instead of being punched with story-story-story right out of the gate, I needed to watch and learn and understand as things happened. It seemed like finally a silent movie was assuming that I was an adult and could do that.

    @Ken--Y'know, I have nothing against the humble umlaut, but sometimes I can't think of a reason for people to not watch a film. In truth, most linguists find diacriticals fascinating, or at least the ones I know do.

  4. It's odd that so many silent films really did seem to underestimate their audience's ability. Or could it simply be that most movie makers still hadn't figured out the medium sufficiently (especially editing) to craft these sorts of films? I've not read enough about the history of film, but am guessing that it may well be the latter...

  5. How dare you unwashed foreigners make fun of our beautiful swedish language ;-)

    I agree on your comments about the movie, though. One of the best dramatic silents, both visually and when it comes to storytelling.

    PS. By the way, did you know that »Å« is originally an »A« with a small »O« on top? Similarly, »Ä« and »Ö« is »A« and »O« topped by a tilted »E«!

  6. @Klaus--I'd like to say the latter as well. It makes sense--directors didn't yet understand what audiences would be able to pick up.

    @Nicolas--My language can beat up your language.

  7. I touched upon this film in one of my "Horror Explorer" series of articles. I thought it was a pretty enjoyable movie, with some beautifully creepy moments.

    Also, what an honor (i say sarcastically)! I have chosen to include a link to this post in the latest issue of SPATTER ANALYSIS.

    Check it out!


  8. Great post! Sounds pretty cool. I hadn't heard of this film before, so I looked it up in Phil Hardy's Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror, and it gets an excellent review. Apparently however it was re-edited for American audiences; it was thought they wouldn't quite grasp its complicated flashback structure.

  9. @Jonny--thanks for the link. I've added you to the list of blogs I'm going to start reading regularly. Despite the fact that I review musicals and drawing room dramas, I'm a horror fan at heart.

    @Will--evidently, the "dumb American" label is older than we thought. And I wonder how movie producers from the 1920s would react to something like Memento.

  10. Excellent review. When I reached this movie on the list I had almost come to the conclusion that the first 50+ movies on the list would be a drag. At this point only Dr. Caligari went beyond "interesting for historical reasons" qualities. Körkarlen put me on track again and at 100+ movies under the belt I am happy that I did. This is a truly enjoyable film and if you consider a typical Bergman movie allright then the slow parts and unexplained bits of Körkarlen actualy in my mind improves the story and mood.
    I went for the Swedish titles and got my does of umlauts :-)

    1. This was one that surprised me, too. I like some of the earlier films, but I didn't have a preconceived notion of this film going in. I'm glad I didn't because it was a surprise pleasure.