Okay, this wasn’t perfect. But – it was strangely affecting.
This Swedish film from 1921 was a sort of combo of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Instead of a Christmas setting, the story takes place on New Year’s Eve in a small Swedish town. A young social worker, Sister Edit, is dying of consumption and begs her colleagues to seek out a man named David Holm – she insists she needs to talk to him before she dies. David Holm, meanwhile, is hanging out in the graveyard, splitting a bottle of hooch with a pair of buddies; he tells them a “ghost story” he heard from a friend, Georges, about how the person who dies at the stroke of midnight every New Year’s Eve is doomed to drive a spectral carriage for the following year, collecting the souls of the newly-dead and bringing them to their final destination.
One of Edit’s colleagues finds the group shortly thereafter, and tries to persuade David to come with him. Nothing doing – David angrly chases him off. His friends are shocked at his reluctance and try to persuade him to visit Sister Edit after all – she’s on her deathbed, they insist, he has to – but David still refuses. They argue, eventually coming to blows – and one of the other men finally takes a swing at David with a log, hitting him in the head and killing him, just as the clock strikes midnight. They run off – but soon along comes the ghostly carriage, ready to put David to work. And who else should be driving – but Georges.
It’s especially fitting, Georges says, that David should replace him – since Georges blames himself for leading David into a drunkard’s life to begin with. David – still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he’s, well, dead – doesn’t follow. So Georges leads David, and us, on an extended flashback into David’s past.
David was once happily married, and had a younger brother who was doting uncle to David’s two little girls. But Georges lead the brothers into drink, and both ended up in prison – David for public lewdness, and his brother for manslaughter. When David got out of prison, he found an empty house – his wife Anna had taken the two girls and split. Vowing revenge, David hit the road – and kept hitting the bottle.
Georges reminds David that one year prior, David had stumbled into a flophouse – which just so happened to be run by Sister Edit. Moved by pity, she stayed up all night mending his coat, uttering a prayer at the stroke of midnight that David have a happy year. When David woke and saw the mended coat, he asked to meet the person who fixed it – and then with Sister Edit looking on, he ripped off all the patches, just to mess with her, before leaving.
But Sister Edit just became more determined to save him, and began making surprise visits to the saloon to talk sense into him. She even manages to track down David’s wife, and talks her into taking him back. But David – by now also sick with consumption – does nothing to reform his ways, and his wife is soon sick as well.
Georges wraps up his flashback with a recommendation that they visit Sister Edit after all, since she was looking for him. When they reach her beside, Sister Edit is near enough to death to see Georges – but begs him to spare her for a few minutes, so she can talk to David. But David is floored when he hears her say that it’s because she wants to apologize. She thinks that bringing David and Anna together again only made things worse for them both. Touched by her kindness, David regretfully reveals himself and kisses her hand; Edit, touched by his forgiveness, finally dies. Georges ushers David out when she does, though, telling him with a glance up that “others will come for her for where she’s going”.
Instead, David is surprised to see that they’re headed towards his own house – where he sees Anna mournfully studying the two sleeping girls. She then fetches a vial of poison out of her handbag, and starts brewing some tea, desparingly planning to kill them all in a murder-suicide. David begs Georges to do something; he can’t, he says, but realizes that maybe David is now in a place to be able to. “Spirit, return to your prison,” he intones – sending David’s ghost back into his body, just in time for him to wake up, run home, and prevent Anna from carrying through her plan. He tearfully makes her an apology, promising to reform, and intones the prayer George has taught him earlier in the film – “May my soul not be reaped until it has reached full maturity.”
The structure of the flashback was actually a little clumsy at first – instead of opening with David, we spend a lengthy time in Sister Edit’s sickroom, setting things up there, so it was a little jarring to change gear and realize David was the star of the show. But once Georges’ ghost shows up in the carriage I’d gotten things sorted out well enough. There’s also a couple of extended sequences of the Phantom Carriage collecting various souls which were probably put in just for color; they looked cool, especially the one with the carriage riding over the ocean to collect a drowning victim, but didn’t really add to the story.
From a cinematic history perspective, though, I think this may have been the first instance of the trope where you show “soul leaving a body” with a double-exposure of the “body” lying still on the ground, and a see-through “soul” getting up and moving away from it. This was actually the most complicated bit for the filmmakers – they used hand-cranked cameras, so when they filmed each sequence, the cameramen had to try to match the speeds exactly so both exposures would be even.
The Phantom Carriage is said to be one of Ingmar Bergen’s favorites; he first saw it at the age of 15 and made a habit of seeing it once a year ever after. His own depiction of Death in The Seventh Seal also owed something to Georges’ cloak and scythe in the film.