Criterion Sunday 579: Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921)

There’s a lot going on in this silent film, which is based on a novel by the first woman to become a Nobel Laureate in Literature (Selma Lagerlöf). The story is of a layabout drunkard called David Holm, who has abused his wife, left her and his children and is slowly drinking himself to death carousing with his friends. And yet a Salvation Army woman, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), believes he can be redeemed, and she calls for him on her deathbed — apparently too late, though.

Just at the story level, via the device of the dying woman seeking to save his soul, we are drawn sympathetically to the story of David (played by the director himself, still most famously known as the lead in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries), despite his being repeatedly a compromised, abusive and unlovable man. But what’s striking is the way this is all unfolded, in a series of flashbacks nested within other flashbacks, stories within stories, as like the narrative structure itself we start to get closer to the heart of this character. And all of this is quite aside from the central titular conceit of the film, which is that one who dies at the chiming of New Year’s Day has to serve Death by riding his carriage to pick up the dead bodies.

Putting that all together — the intense melodrama, the supernatural horror — makes this an extremely evocative film, and the Criterion release has an excellent musical score by Swedish composer Matti Bye complementing the on-screen action perfectly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Victor Sjöstrom (based on the novel of the same title but usually translated as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Selma Lagerlöf); Cinematographer Julius Jaenzon; Starring Victor Sjöstrom, Hilda Borgström, Astrid Holm; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 5 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 139: Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957)

Another one of those classics that always crops up on lists (I’ve been watching a few of them recently, not least on the Criterion Collection) but it succeeds on the basis of Victor Sjöström’s performance as the old professor close to death. He’s looking back on his life, often watching scenes from 50-60 years earlier, and seeing — as we are — what a difficult man he’s been and how he needs to open up. There’s heavy-handed use of the various women he meets (and has known) to drive the point home, which works if you accept this is very much told not just about him, but from his point of view.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by Stephen Prince, who covers many of the themes, although I am not such a huge fan of his style, though he appears on plenty of Criterion’s Bergman releases. There’s also an introduction by Bergman, which I gather is an outtake from one of the many documentaries about his life and work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 January 2017.

Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.

The Wind (1928)
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom]; Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough); Cinematographer John Arnold; Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again on DVD at home, Wednesday 26 April 2017).

Lady Macbeth film posterLady Macbeth (2016)
Director William Oldroyd; Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда Ledi Makbet Mtsenskovo uyezda “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017.