The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage (Swedish: Körkarlen, literally "The Wagoner") is a 1921 Swedish fantasy 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.[1] It is based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (Körkarlen; 1912), by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf.

The Phantom Carriage
Theatrical release poster
Directed byVictor Sjöström
Produced byCharles Magnusson
Screenplay byVictor Sjöström
Based onKörkarlen by Selma Lagerlöf
StarringVictor Sjöström
Hilda Borgström
Tore Svennberg
CinematographyJulius Jaenzon
Edited byEugen Hellman
Distributed byAB Svensk Filmindustri
Release date
  • 1 January 1921 (1921-01-01) (Sweden)
  • 1 February 1922 (1922-02-01) (United States)
Running time
107 minutes
LanguageSilent film
Swedish intertitles

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 the works of Ingmar Bergman.[2]

It is also known as The Phantom Chariot, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! and The Stroke of Midnight (1922 US release).[3]


On New Year's Eve, dying Salvation Army Sister Edit has one last wish: to speak with David Holm. David, a drunkard, is sitting in a graveyard, telling his two drinking buddies about his old friend Georges, who told him about the legend that the last person to die each year has to drive Death's carriage and collect the souls of everybody who dies the following year. Georges himself died on New Year's Eve the previous year.

Gustafsson, a colleague of Edit, finds David, but is unable to convince him to go see her. When his friends try to drag him there, a fight breaks out, and David is struck on the head with a bottle just before the clock strikes twelve. David's soul emerges from his body as the carriage appears. The driver is Georges.

Georges reminds David of how the latter once lived a happy life with his wife Anna, their two children and his brother, until Georges led him astray. As shown in a flashback that follows, David was jailed for drunkenness. Before being released from prison, he was shown his brother, who had been sentenced to a long term for killing a man while drunk. When David went home, he found the apartment empty. Furious, he became determined to track Anna down and have his revenge.

During his search throughout Sweden, David arrives at a new Salvation Army Mission on New Year's Eve. Maria does not want to answer the bell, as it is very late, but Edit lets him in. Despite his rudeness to her, she mends his coat while he sleeps. The next day, she asks him to return in one year; she had prayed that the first visitor would have good fortune for that period and wants to know the outcome of her prayer. He agrees, but before he leaves, he tears out her patches.

Georges informs David that the promise has to be fulfilled and takes him against his will in the carriage to Edit. In another flashback it is shown how Edit once found David in a bar with Gustafsson and another man. Edit persuaded the other man to go home with his wife and gave Gustafsson an advertisement for a Salvation Army meeting. At the meeting, Gustafsson submitted himself to God, but David remained completely unrepentant. Anna was at the meeting, but David did not recognize her. Later, Anna told Edit who she was, and Edit tried to effect a reconciliation. At first, the couple were optimistic, but soon David's behavior drove Anna to despair once again. One night, Anna pleaded with him not to expose their children to his consumption (the same fatal disease Edit caught from him). When he refused, Anna locked him in the kitchen and tried to flee again with their children, but fainted. He broke through the door with an axe, but did not physically hurt her.

When Georges 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 magnified sins, as she brought the couple together again. When David hears this, he is deeply moved. He kisses her hands, and when Edit sees his regret, she can die in peace. Georges does not take her, saying others will come for her. He then shows David that Anna, afraid of leaving her children alone after she herself dies of consumption, is planning to poison them and herself. David begs Georges to do something, but Georges has no power over the living. Then David regains consciousness in the graveyard. He rushes to Anna before she can act. With great difficulty, he convinces her that he sincerely wishes to reform.




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.[4]


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 the studio for technical reasons.[3]


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.[3] One difficulty was that the cameras were hand-cranked, meaning that the camera had to be cranked at exactly the same speed in different exposures for the end result to appear natural.[4]


Restoration and home video

For decades, The Phantom Carriage was only available in poor quality, black and white prints, often of the retitled US release version, with English intertitles.

1975: The Swedish Film Institute combined two incomplete positive nitrate prints, one B&W with Swedish intertitles and the other colour-tinted with English intertitles, to make a complete 35mm B&W duplicate negative with Swedish intertitles (approx. 6438ft at 16fps). New viewing prints were struck from this restored negative, using the tinted nitrate print as a colour reference.

1995: An incomplete (approx. 6057ft at 18fps) but good quality, colour tinted print with a custom score by Elena Kats-Chernin was broadcast on ZDF/Arte, and later released on German VHS (1995) and DVD (2009).[5]

1998: The tinted Swedish restoration was released domestically on VHS with a brand new custom score by Swedish musician Matti Bye. In 2007, it was also released on Swedish DVD with the Bye score. In 2008, it was simultaneously released on two UK DVDs, one with Bye's score and the other featuring a new score by electronic duo KTL.[6]

2011: In collaboration with the Swedish Film Institute, the Criterion Collection released a new digital scan of the Swedish Film Institute's restoration on US Blu-ray and DVD, featuring both the Bye and KTL scores.[7]

2015: The Swedish Film Institute carried out a further digital transfer of their restoration; this version is only available as a DCP, with or without Bye's recorded score.[8][9]

Critical response

Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 100%, based on 11 reviews, with a rating average of 9/10.[10]

Jonathan Rosenbaum from Chicago Reader praised the film, calling it a masterpiece.[11]

Legacy and influence

The Phantom Carriage was an 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.[12] 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.[13] The television play The Image Makers (2000), directed by Bergman, is a historical drama depicting the making of The Phantom Carriage.

It is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which says "The Phantom Carriage not only cemented the fame of director-screenwriter-actor Victor Sjöström and Swedish silent cinema, but also had a well-documented, artistic influence on many great directors and producers."[14] 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 to reach his fleeing wife and child.[15]


  1. "Progressive Silent Film List: The Phantom Carriage". Silent Era. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
  2. Bo Florin (2010), "Victor Sjöström and the Golden Age", Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (eds), "Swedish Film: An Introduction and Reader", Lund: Nordic Academic Press, pp. 76-85, p.83.
  3. "Körkarlen (link to PDF)". Svenska Filminstitutet.
  4. Grönkvist, Lars "Selma Lagerlöf försökte stoppa Stillers filmversion Archived 2009-02-01 at the Wayback Machine" (in Swedish) Selma Lagerlöf 150 år
  5. "Der Fuhrmann des Todes DVD". Absolut Medien.
  6. "The Phantom Carriage DVD comparison". DVDCompare.
  7. "The Phantom Carriage Blu-ray comparison". DVDCompare.
  8. "La Charrette fantôme". La cinémathèque française.
  9. "Körkarlen". Svenska Filminstitutet.
  10. "The Phantom Carriage (1921) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  11. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "The Phantom Carriage". Chicago Reader. Jonathan Rosenbaum. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  12. Blomkvist, Mårten (14 December 2007) "Stumma pärlor lyser upp" (in Swedish) Dagens Nyheter. Retrieved on 3 March 2009.
  13. Bergdahl, Gunnar (31 July 2007). "Ingmar Bergmans utlåtanden om svenska filmer—Körkarlen" (in Swedish) Aftonbladet. Retrieved on 14 February 2009.
  14. Schneider 2013, p. 34.
  15. "Den svenska filmens Guldålder" (in Swedish) Thorellifilm
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