Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Phantom Carriage (Korkarlen) (1921)

What is a good movie? I do not mean an important movie. Simply qualifying for the list makes a film important and heaven knows some of the movies on the list are not good.

I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes a movie good as there are so many parameters, but for me on a personal level it is when my attention is really engaged with the movie. Laughing, crying, fascinated, disgusted, anything that engage me.

The old silents are at a natural disadvantage because we are at a different place now as a modern audience. The problems may not be our problems, the references are unknown to us and the overacting necessary for a silent to communicate the story without speech is usually a turn-off when you are used to a more realistic sort of acting.

This is a very general comment that could be used for any of the silents really, but it is particularly relevant here because despite all these disadvantages Körkarlen succeeds magnificently in engaging me.

It is cold in Sweden. On new-years night the coldness is mindboggling on several levels (no hard feeling, I like Sweden) and this chill is felt by the viewer perfectly. A charity worker (slumsyster) is dying and requests to see a certain David Holm. While shocked that she would want to see him her attendants (colleagues) finds and bring David Holms wife. She is poor, apathetic and living in a small shed with two small children. When David Holms wife get to the sickbed of the charity worker an anger rises in her, a bitter anger, and she moves to strangle her. Instead the charity worker grabs her and kisses her and asks forgiveness.

At this point we realize that there are some serious secrets here. Some deep deep feelings are involved, but “Körkarlen” does not tell us right away. Instead our interest has been awakened.

When they find David Holm he does not want to see the charity sister. He is sitting at the cemetery with his fellows drinking heavily. It is clear that he is trash. Though how much trash we have yet to learn. David Holm tell spook stories about his friend who a year before told of the ghostly Körkarl, who is employed by Death to collect the dead in his carriage. The last who dies before 12 new-year evening will be the new Körkarl for the next year. The Körkarl soon after dies.

David Holm gets into a fight with his friends, they strike him on the head with a bottle and he apparently dies. Now The Körkarl appears and turns out to be his friend that died a year ago. The Körkarl takes David Holm on an excursion to show him the evil he has caused.

I will not recount that entire flashback, it would be too much of a spoiler. But it suffices to say that David went from a happy family man to become a bitter scum of the earth. He fell in with his friend and started drinking, caused his brother to be charged with murder and lost his wife and children. David Holm is utterly unsympathetic and I am not sure drink alone is to blame. There is an insidiousness to his character.

In any case here when it apparently is too late he has to watch impotently while his wife is mixing a poison to kill herself and the children. This is a very strong scene. The children are innocent. Throughout the movie they represent the victims of David Holms rage and viciousness. He lost them, sacrificed them for his evil ways and my heart cries out for them.

The charity worker had thought she could help them by bringing man and wife together, that she was doing the right thing. In return David Holm gave her the fatal disease that is now killing her and bring them together was apparently a disaster for the wife and children.

This is a very bleak and chilling story about downfall and hope of redemption, of faith and cynical reality, of intentions gone wrong and how at the end of things we are held accountable for what we do.

The ghostly driver of death’s carriage is the judge who himself is taking the punishment of leading David Holm onto this path of destruction.

There is an interesting parallel in “It’s a wonderful life” from 46, where the lead lives a good life, thinks he is a terrible person and wants to kill himself. An angel arrives to show him what life would be without all the things he has done and been and convinces him to go back to life.

In Körkarlen the angel is replaced by Death, David Holm lived not a good life but a terrible life. What Körkarlen is showing him is the consequences not of his good deed but his bad ones. Now like George Bailey a veil is removed from David Holms eyes. Is he getting a second chance?

“Körkarlen” is not a happy Christmas movie. It is chilling, scary, gruesome and entirely captivating. When this movie was restored they added a fantastic, industrial sounding soundtrack, which adds exactly the right dimension to the movie.

This is why despite everything this is a very good movie.


  1. I completely agree. I didn't have any expectations of this film, but I was captivated by it. So strange and interesting.

    Films like this are why I pursue The List. I'd have never watched this otherwise.

    1. Strange and interesting are the right words.

  2. This eerie little film from Victor Sjostrom's was probably one of the biggest influences on Ingmar Bergman's career. So much so, that nearly 40 years later he used Sjostrom as his lead in Wild Strawberries.

    The special effects of this movie where way, way ahead of their time.

    1. I knew that Sjörstrom feature in some of Bergman's films, but I am yet to truly discover Bergman.
      I think visaully this is a truly spectacular film.