Regret is an awful thing to entertain. Nostalgia at its worst. Self-absorbed and boring, it is not very much fun to witness. Victor Sjí¶strí¶m’s The Phantom Carriage is all about this distasteful human condition; a hot, mad – no, psychopathic – self-obsession. The film’s protagonist makes a rather large mistake, which is simultaneously seen as a defining moment. Sjí¶strí¶m being Swedish, the sheer awfulness comes in buckets so big they’d dwarf a cottage. As heavy with the morals as it is with the supernatural, The Phantom Carriage is extremely reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Here, though, the motivation for the protagonist’s downward spiral is not angst over greed and misanthropy, it is angst over alienation, family dereliction and alcohol abuse and a not fully articulated interest in self-destruction.
Manufactured in Sweden in 1920, The Phantom Carriage is a quaint and harrowing New Year’s Eve fable about fate that reeks of late nineteenth-century Protestantism and temperance. Afflicted with tuberculosis and hell-bent on a very slow suicide, Sjí¶strí¶m’s protagonist David Holm (played by Sjí¶strí¶m himself) is tragedy on two legs, a melancholic kamikaze pickled in alcohol. Pathos abounds but there is no hope, David Holm is beyond redemption. In Swedish, the word Holm means an island. This seems an appropriate surname given the alienation Sjí¶strí¶m’s protagonist endures.
As Holm and his two boozer friends congregate beneath a clock tower at twenty minutes to midnight, one of them begins to recount a frightful yarn: ‘You gentlemen are not afraid of ghosts, I hope…’ The tale, delivered via intertitles, carries on: ‘No ordinary driver holds the reigns… he is in the service of a strict master named Death’. Indeed, one imagines Death would be a pretty miserable employer, but I was a civil servant once so I have my doubts.
Notions of life and the afterlife are index-linked in early cinematic vocabulary. Sjí¶strí¶m knows this. ‘A tale told in living pictures under the direction of Victor Sjí¶strí¶m’, state the opening credits in Swedish. Is the Phantom Carriage actually Sjí¶strí¶m’s camera? Since its invention, the camera has been associated with the uncanny and this isn’t just down to anthropomorphism and technological ignorance, the camera was and still is an untrustworthy device. It has the ability to make phantasms out of reality, it records the past and can alter it and Sjí¶strí¶m relishes this. The director certainly liked optical effects or at least saw something of the unheimlich in such gimmicks. The Phantom Carriage is a phantom image. A dullish apparition in cobweb grey, a double-exposure. It intrudes as a super-imposition onto the action of the mortal world.
There are two versions of the DVD, one with a Klezmer-esque ‘authentic’ soundtrack which is nothing more than adequate and another with a KTL soundtrack. KTL being Peter Rehberg aka Pita of Mego and Stephen O’Malley from SunnO))), this is a rather nice bit of acoustic ectoplasm that shimmers like a moonlit lake. Tremulous, spectral and rumbling it hams up the spookiness, but this is erroneous since this film is really about sub-zero squalor and decrepitude. It is hard-boiled and grim and the paranormal aspects of it are in some ways the least relevant since they are ultimately a McGuffin. David Holm is already in hell so damnation to purgatory seems a mere formality. His mad rage at himself and the world around him is far more disturbing than the presence of a skeleton with a scythe.
Fear God, love your family and stay off the booze. Those are the three main moral tenets of this film, all of which are usually very confused on a typical British New Year’s Eve. At least they are in my house, quite often at times other than New Year but always joyously so.