The Phantom Carriage (Swedish: Körkarlen) is a 1921 Swedish film generally considered to be one of the central works in the history of Swedish cinema. Released on New Year's Day 1921, it was directed by and starred Victor Sjöström, alongside Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg and Astrid Holm. It is based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (Körkarlen; 1912), by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf.

The film is notable for its special effects, its advanced (for the time) narrative structure with flashbacks within flashbacks, and for having been a major influence on Ingmar Bergman.

It is also known as The Phantom Chariot, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! and The Stroke of Midnight.

In 2008, Tartan Films released a DVD version of the film, with a new and contemporary score from KTL. In 2011, the Criterion Collection released a restored version of the film on Blu-ray and DVD.

Plot summary

The Phantom Carriage

On New Year's Eve, the dying Salvation Army girl Edit has one last wish: to speak with David Holm. David, an alcoholic, is sitting in a graveyard with two drinking buddies, talking about his old friend Georges who told him about Death's carriageâ€"the legend that the last person to die each year has to work under the "strict master" Death and collect the souls of everybody who dies the following year. Georges himself died on New Year's Eve last year.

Gustafsson, a friend of Edit who is looking for David, finds him and tries to convince him to go and see her, but David refuses. When his friends too try to convince him, a fight breaks out where David is accidentally killed just before the clock strikes twelve. The carriage appears, and the driver is revealed as Georges.

As David's soul steps out of his body, Georges reminds him of what he once had, how he once lived a happy family life with his wife Anna before ending up in bad company with Georges and the other drinkers. It is revealed how Anna left him after he was jailed for intoxication. He also reminds him how David exactly one year ago was taken care of by Edit, and while treating her badly, he gave her his promise to find her the following year so she would find out whether her prayers for him had worked or not.

Georges informs David that the promise has to be fulfilled and brings him in the carriage to Edit's house. In another flashback it is shown how Edit once found David in a bar with his friend Gustafsson. Edit persuaded them to go to a Salvation Army meeting. At the meeting, Gustafsson submitted himself to God, but David stayed cynical. Present at the meeting was also David's wife. Edit tried to bring the couple together again. At first they were optimistic, but soon David's drinking drove them into despair. One night David became aggressive when Anna tried to protect their children from being infected by David's tuberculosis. He was locked in the kitchen, but broke through the door with an axe.

When the driver arrives in Edit's room, she begs him to let her live until she sees David again. She thinks she is the one to blame for his guilt, as she brought the couple together again. When David hears this he is moved. He kisses her hands, and when Edit sees his regret she can die in peace. Georges then takes David to Anna, who is planning to kill herself and their children. David begs Georges and God to let him interfere. Georges allows him to return to life. David and Anna embrace each other and cry.


  • Victor Sjöström as David Holm
  • Hilda Borgström as Anna Holm
  • Tore Svennberg as Georges
  • Astrid Holm as Edit
  • Concordia Selander as Edit's Mother
  • Lisa Lundholm as Maria
  • Einar Axelsson as David's Brother
  • Nils Aréhn as Prison Chaplain
  • Olof Ã…s as The First Driver
  • Tor Weijden as Gustafsson
  • Simon Lindstrand as David's Companion
  • Nils Elffors as David's Companion


The Phantom Carriage


Since 1917 there was a deal between Selma Lagerlöf and A-B Svenska Biografteatern to adapt at least one Lagerlöf novel for film every year. Prior to The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström had made three of these adaptions which had all been well received by critics, the audience and Lagerlöf herself. Since all of them had taken place in a rural setting, Sjöström felt that he wanted a change for the fourth and suggested the urban, gritty Körkarlen. Lagerlöf was initially sceptical about the possibility to adapt the novel's elements of occultism and mysticism, and Sjöström was well aware of the difficulties. The script took eight days to finish and in April 1920 Sjöström travelled to Lagerlöf's mansion Mårbacka in Värmland to present it. After two hours of Sjöström reading loud and performing the whole script by himself, Lagerlöf responded by offering him dinner, which Sjöström took as an approval.


Shooting took place from May to July 1920 in the newly started Filmstaden studios in Solna. The set design was inspired by the southern Swedish town Landskrona, which corresponded to what Lagerlöf had in mind when writing the novel. Lagerlöf's original wish was to film it on location in Landskrona, but Sjöström chose to do it in studio for the technical benefits.


Post-production was famously long and intense due to the extensive use of special effects, developed by cinematographer Julius Jaenzon and lab executive Eugén Hellman. Double exposures made in the camera (optical printing wasn't available until the early 1930s), had been used before by Jaenzon, already in Sir Arne's Treasure from 1919, but were here developed to be far more advanced with several layers. This allowed the ghost characters to walk around in three dimensions, being able to first be covered by an object in the foreground, but when in the same take walking up in front of the object, it would be seen through the ghost's semi-transparent body. One difficulty was that the cameras were hand-cranked, meaning that the camera had to be cranked at exactly the same speed in the different exposures for the end result to appear natural.


The Phantom Carriage

The original screenings didn't have an original soundtrack, instead various pieces by Ture Rangström, Mendelsohn, Saint-Saëns and Max Reger were performed by the orchestras. For a long time several different soundtracks, generally of low quality, were used for television screenings and video releases. However in 1998, on demand from the Swedish Film Institute, a new soundtrack was composed by renowned Swedish silent film composer and live pianist Matti Bye, which was highly praised and has been featured on all following VHS and DVD releases.

At the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival a new soundtrack was composed and performed live by pop icon Jonathan Richman. No Region-1 DVD release with this version has been announced.

In 2008, the now defunct Tartan Films (now Palisades Tartan), under license from Swedish Film Institute, released a region 2 DVD version with a newly commissioned soundtrack by the electronic music group KTL.


The Phantom Carriage


The Phantom Carriage


The film was a powerful influence on the later Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman who also utilised the figure of Death in The Seventh Seal, where the referring to him as a "strict master" is a reference to The Phantom Carriage. Bergman also cast Sjöström in the leading role for Wild Strawberries, which also features references to the film. Bergman has said that he first saw it at 15 and watched it at least once every year. The television play The Image Makers (2000), directed by Bergman, is a historical drama depicting the making of The Phantom Carriage.

Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror film The Shining features several thematic similarities, as well as the famous sequence where Jack Nicholson uses an axe to break through a wooden door. (There is also a similar scene in D. W. Griffith's 1919 film Broken Blossoms.)


The Phantom Carriage

External links

The Phantom Carriage
  • The Phantom Carriage at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Phantom Carriage at the Swedish Film Institute Database
  • The Phantom Carriage is available for free download at the Internet Archive (Swedish intertitles with English translation)
  • The Phantom Carriage at AllMovie
  • Film clip/trailer with English subtitles (from San Francisco International Film Festival)
  • Criterion Collection Essay by Paul Mayersberg

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