The Mayans, the wise race of ancients who created hot cocoa, set December 21st, 2012 as the end date of their Calendar, which the intelligent and logical amongst us know signifies the day the world will end, presumably at 12:21:12am, Mountain Time. From now until zero date, we will explore the 50 films you need to watch before the entire world perishes. We don’t have much time, so be content, be prepared, be entertained.
The Film: The Phantom Carriage (1921)
It’s New Year’s Eve and in the story of this film’s mythos it is said that the last human being to die on the stroke of midnight of the new year is to take on the responsibility of reaping the souls of the dead for the next 365 days. In the lifespan of Death a minute’s worth of the human clock is like a lifetime, filled with the torture of bearing the endless task of taking the essence of a person into the next realm of existence. They will feel the regrets until their time is done and the next will be forced to endure the suffering.
On the brink of death is Edith, a woman whose last wish on her deathbed is to speak with the community’s local brigand David Holm to tell him something she has been keeping to herself since she first met him. Edith is, in every sense of the word to the local community, a saint with the purest of kind hearts. Why she wants to speak with David as her dying wish is beyond everyone’s understanding, but her friends desperate to give her what she wants seek out David before it’s too late.
David, at this same time also lies lifeless on the floor with Death waiting by his side, ready to hand over the responsibility, but not without explanation. David has lived an adult life on a bitter pursuit for revenge towards his ex-wife who he felt abandoned him in their early years. After years of contributing no semblance of positive interaction with other people David now sits on a throne of malice and is in no small degree responsible for the tarnished lives of many; most specifically the wife whose life he sought to ruin and possibly even the life of the woman desperately trying to find him before her time runs out.
It’s in this final hour that David is forced to re-experience all of his wrongdoings that led to where he is and lay helplessly as everything appears to unravel before him; and ultimately lead to the inevitability of him becoming the next reaper of souls with no hope for redemption.
The Review: The modern Western audience, without knowing it, may be very familiar with the story, players, structure and even possibly some the visuals of Sweden’s The Phantom Carriage without, most likely, ever having seen nor heard of the film. It was adapted for the screen by one of film’s early masters and the father of Swedish filmmaking Victor Sjostrom (who also directed and starred in the picture as David Holm) from the novel “Thou Shall Bear Witness!” by the Nobel-prize winning Selma Lagerlof. The picture had a very profound effect at an early age on Ingmar Bergman (the most admired filmmaker in Sweden’s history) and he would later champion it as a direct influence for The Seventh Seal. Visually speaking it’s very easy to notice when you’ve seen both pictures. Bergman would also cast Sjostrom in his later years as the lead actor for one of his other major masterpieces Wild Strawberries.
That story of a man on his deathbed reliving flashbacks of the most significant moments in his life on the eve of a very symbolic winter holiday is, of course, very reminiscent of Charles Dickens‘ very famed story “A Christmas Carol“. I wouldn’t doubt to find if “A Christmas Carol” is the most adapted piece of literature in history and one familiar to almost anyone of any level of education. It’s a timeless story of redemption and the power of The Phantom Carriage is no less significant despite what can be considered a borrowed theme and strikingly similar storyline to Dickens’ work. I would argue that the climax of The Phantom Carriage is a much more affecting and devastatingly emotional moment for David Holm than it is for Ebenezer Scrooge (at least in motion picture form) and therefore a more impacting experience for the viewer.
While The Phantom Carriage may seem too similar in storyline to the adaptations of A Christmas Carol I think that said similarities may play to the film’s advantage for modern audiences to give it the time of day despite any lack of interest in silent-era filmmaking. For its time the film was a technical wonder and its structure of containing flashbacks within flashbacks (and it feeling exceptionally organic and easy to follow in the process) was a pioneering technique in cinema storytelling that occurred many decades before some of the other masterpieces often credited with those attributes; like Rashomon.
What sets The Phantom Carriage apart from other pictures that offered new feats to the medium is the emotional resonance of the story itself. Like Dickens’ story it’s a piece on salvation’s possibility even in one’s twilight years, as well as a display in genuine goodwill. Unlike Dickens’ story, and in no small way thanks to the sincere desperation of David Holm (convincingly portrayed by Sjostrom) and the unflinching generosity and exuberant love for human fellowship found in Sister Edith, I think it actually possesses the power to inspire both on an unsuspecting audience.
But why spend 103 minutes minutes watching this film when you only have 321,328 minutes left alive?
Because if you’re going to stare death in the face what you may have to endure first is to reflect upon your own life, from beginning to end. Every choice you’ve ever made has attached consequences. Nothing means nothing. You may not be able to undo everything you wish you hadn’t done, nor may you be able to do anything to correct it; but you can face it. You can own it and you can change, and it doesn’t have to come as a threatening consequence to the fear of Death and the bearing of countless lifetimes of suffering.
If you do, then who knows? Maybe Death has the power to make an exception.