KÖRKALEN - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(The Phantom Chariot)

Sweden, 1921

Director: Victor Sjöström (Seastrom)

Production: Svensk Bio; black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: about 120 minutes; length: 5 reels, 6122 feet. Released 1 January 1921. Re-released in a re-edited version in America in 1922. Filmed 1920 in Sweden.

Screenplay: Victor Sjöström (Seastrom), from the novel by Selma Lagerlöf; photography: Julius Jaenzon; art directors: Aleksander Bako and Axel Esbensen.


Cast: Victor Sjöström ( David Holm ); Hilda Borgstrom ( His wife ); Astrid Holm ( Sister Edith ); Tor Weijden ( Gustafsson ); Tore Svenberg ( Georg ); Concordia Selander ( Edith's mother ); Lisa Lundholm ( Sister Maria ); Olaf Aas ( Coachman ); Nils Aréhn ( Prison chaplain ).



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* * *

Although it was made more than 60 years ago, The Phantom Chariot is still considered to be a film remarkable for its sophisticated narrative structure. Though flashbacks were not unheard-of narrative devices in the cinema of that time, The Phantom Chariot was not understood by many audiences, and had to be re-edited to facilitate comprehension. The narrative is developed according to a mise-enabme construction, wherein flashback issues from flashback, and stories are contained by or within other stories. Audiences of the time were sufficiently educated viewers, cinematically speaking, to grasp one temporal level of flashback description, but beyond that had some difficulty in deciphering further narrative complexities.

The articulation of the different temporal layers in the film serves to fill out its penultimate meaning (the ultimate one being concerned with repentance and redemption of the soul), which has to do with the notion that time is multi-dimensional and multi-perspectival. In La Jetée , Chris Marker pursues this concept, and in doing so suggests that the Western world's current perception of time is not only too restrictive but needlessly fatal as well. In The Phantom Chariot David Holm, the main character, is "given another chance" at life via a "non-linear" portal, the point at which the time cycle begins and also can be arrested; in this case it is New Year's Eve.

Most of the filmic narrative actually takes place or at least is generated in a cemetery where David Holm and two drinking buddies are getting ready to toast the incoming year. A shot of a nearby clock tower lets us know that it is 20 minutes to midnight. Then David Holm tells a story about how one gets to be driver of "the phantom chariot." The tale has it that any man who breathes his last at the stroke of midnight before the beginning of a new year must then take over the ghastly chore of gathering up departed souls during the coming year. Another shot of the clock tower reveals that ten minutes have elapsed during the telling of this story within the diegesis of the film. A policeman comes along to ask David if he would please come and visit Edith, a salvation army nurse who had once been kind to him and is now dying of consumption. He refuses, then fights with his two companions. They knock him out and leave quickly, presuming him dead. A magnificent superimposition of David Holm's spirit leaving his body follows. At that moment the phantom chariot arrives, driven by an old drinking buddy, Georg, who has died the previous New Year's Eve at precisely midnight.

The narrative then proceeds through a series of flashbacks: we see how David Holm met Georg, and that Georg was a bad influence on him, encouraging him to drink heavily and consequently mistreat his wife and two young children; we are introduced to Edith and the Salvation Army Mission where David Holm stayed after being released from prison and finding that his wife had left him.

Returning to the cemetery once again, the film is now three fourths complete (or roughly an hour and a half into the total viewing time), and Georg has one last soul to collect—David Holm's. But, according to the time registered by the clock tower in the film it is midnight, ten minutes after David Holm had finished telling the story about the phantom chariot. Georg ties up his body with invisible yet binding rope and loads him into the carriage. David Holm's spirit rides up front with Georg as they ride to the house where Edith is about to die. Georg also "shows" David Holm that his wife is about to take her own life as well as the lives of their children. At the moment of Edith's death, David Holm breaks down into tears, praying desperately to God for another chance in life so that he can prevent the death of his innocent family. An abrupt cut back to the cemetery shows him waking up, his body and spirit intact. He rubs his head and eyes for an instant, then gets up—a bit shakily at first, for he is still drunk from all the liquor he has consumed this New Year's Eve. He arrives home just in time to stop his wife from going through with the fatal poisonings.

In 1920, "zero-degree" writing or a "zero-degree" narrative structure was still 40 odd years away from being invented, yet The Phantom Chariot is clearly an example of just such a representational construct.

—Sandra L. Beck

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