Lawyer: “Those are life’s little difficulties, you see!”

– August Strindberg, A Dream Play (1901)

When Ingmar Bergman wanted to recreate the late 19th century youth of Isaac Borg in Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957), he turned for inspiration to Sweden’s most famous artist, Carl Larsson (1). In a series of picture books with titles such as Ett hem (Our Home, 1899), Spadarfvet, mitt lilla landtbruk (Spadarfvet, Our Place in the Country, 1906) and Åt solsidan (On the Sunny Side, 1910), Larsson portrayed family life in cosy farmhouse interiors and brightly lit rural idylls. This idealism was hard won, and Larsson’s youth, like that of Victor Sjöström, who plays Borg, was marked by rupture and poverty, and dominated by an abusive father (2). This was a background to some extent shared by Selma Lagerlöf, author of the novel Körkarlen (3) – the source of Sjöström’s adaptation – and Larsson sketched at least two portraits of the writer, in 1902 and 1908 (4). But the most striking of Larsson’s works, and one uncannily predicting the special effects for which Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) is famous, is “The Home’s Good Fairy” (1909), in which a benevolent ghost hovers in a bedroom like a double exposure (5). Sjöström and his legendary cameraman Julius Jaenzon (credited here under his pseudonym “J. Julius”) used double exposures in The Phantom Carriage to create the illusion of two worlds – one natural, the other supernatural – in the same space (6).

Sjöström was not the first major Swedish artist to evoke the spirit world through photography. August Strindberg, as well as creating modern drama (7) and pioneering many of the concerns and methods of 20th century avant-garde painting, experimented with photography throughout his life, even inventing the “Celestograph”, an image taken without a lens (which Strindberg thought distorted and subverted reality), with sensitised photographic plates turned to the sky and left to expose; and the lensless Wunderkamera, a camera that enabled him to take “psychological portraits” endowed with “mystic meaning” or “visionary suggestion” (8).

Of course, Sjöström and Jaenzon’s experiments were primarily a response to Lagerlöf’s 1912 novel. The Phantom Carriage is remarkably faithful to its source, and the double exposures and other effects can be seen as at once:

1. A visual correlative to the literary narrative’s interpenetration of physical and supernatural worlds or states, where material actions, settings and objects are spiritually freighted (9);

2. An equivalent of the narrative’s recessive structure of stories and flashbacks, all controlled by Georges (Tore Svennberg), Death’s driver (10); tellingly, the carriage itself is introduced in a story within a flashback. In other Lagerlöf books, storytelling seems to be linked to the resurrection of the dead and moral regeneration (11); and

3. Marking the film world’s threshold points: the narrative begins with the Salvation Army’s Sister Edith [Astrid Holm] at “death’s door”, the first of many doors that physically, psychologically and spiritually block characters; while most of the first hour is set in a graveyard, that liminal space where the living bury their dead.

Although the novel, like much of Lagerlöf’s work, takes its cue from Swedish folklore and superstition (12), its theme is festively Christian. It is the tale of a misanthrope who appears to die on New Year’s Eve and is shown the lives he has ruined by an emissary of Death, before being given a chance to redeem himself, and is essentially a variation on Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol (1843). The film seems to endorse such sentiments by ending with David Holm (Sjöström) repeating Georges’ prayer for mankind: “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped”; the title of the book’s 1921 tie-in English translation, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, further emphasises this exhortatory didacticism (13).

The film’s Christianity, however, is more Hitchcock than Dickens. Four decades before Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol identified “exchange”, in particular the “transfer of guilt”, as the English master’s preeminent theme (14), Sjöström was elaborating on its possibilities (15). Although David Holm is clearly conceived as the narrative’s sinner, his actions and fate are part of a roundelay of guilt, blame and punishment. His destiny is intimately bound up with that of saintly Edith – their narratives are intercut in the first “chapter”; each can see Death; they are defined throughout by being prone (Edith is on her deathbed; Holm is repeatedly tempted, for good and ill, when lying down, an image of his death-in-life, his lost humanity); and both destroy Mrs Holm’s well-being. The consequences of Holm’s moral failures physically manifest as consumption and are transmitted to Edith when she repairs his germ-ridden coat. But Edith is not as innocent as she seems; she subsumes her physical attraction to Holm into an obsession with saving his soul, with disastrous results for everyone.

Another system of transference originates with Georges, the smooth-talking, pointy-bearded Mephistopheles who tempts Holm from his contented family life (16) – one significantly rooted in work and nature – to a dissolute urban existence which, paradoxically for a fantasy film, returns Sjöström, after the romantic pantheism (17) of the films that brought him global fame (Terje Vigen [A Man There Was, 1917] and Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru [The Outlaw and His Wife, 1918]), to the unblinking social-realism of Ingeborg Holm (1913). That film’s title character was performed by Hilda Borgström, who here plays Holm’s wife – on one level, The Phantom Carriage imagines what might have changed for the luckless Ingeborg if her husband had lived; Sjöström bleakly suggests: not much. For all its brilliant and evocative use of double exposure, the most moving piece of technical “trickery” in The Phantom Carriage is a dissolve that turns a family picnic in a lakeside glade into a drunken orgy. This triad of inebriates will be repeated in a tavern, with Holm taking over Georges’ role as tempter, just as he must replace him as Death’s driver.

From Blodets Röst (The Voice of Passion, 1913) (18) to his last, underrated film, Under the Red Robe (1937), Sjöström’s work has frequently dramatised themes of declining fortune and the redemption of “bad” or hardened men, and The Phantom Carriage fits neatly into this pattern. But another reading is possible: the film’s systems of transference, repetition, parallelism and circularity; its course of moral and physical infection that spreads to every character; its world where the family is a site of violence, disease and threat, are most chillingly emblematised when Holm hatchets down the kitchen door to stop his brutalised wife from fleeing him. The power of this inexorable scene overshadows the narrative’s final reconciliation and redemption, and Holm’s second resurrection in the world we’ve been shown is serial, without end.


  1. Philip French and Kersti French, Wild Strawberries, BFI, London, 1995, pp. 51-54.
  2. Renate Puvogel, Carl Larsson: Watercolours and Drawings, trans. Michael Claridge, Taschen, Cologne, 1994, pp. 6-7; Bengt Forslund, Victor Sjöström: His Life and Work, trans. Peter Cowie, Zoetrope, New York, 1988, p. 89.
  3. The biographical links between Sjöström, Lagerlöf, and the fictional character of David Holm form the basis of Per Olov Enquist’s play about the making of The Phantom Carriage, Bildmakama (The Image Makers), filmed by Bergman for Swedish television in 2000.
  4. Görel Cavalli-Björkman and Bo Lindwall, The World of Carl Larsson, trans. Allan Lake Rice, John Murray, London, 1983, p. 39.
  5. We know that Sjöström was conscious of this visual tradition by his use of a Nils Forsberg painting to compose a celebrated shot in He Who gets Slapped (1924). See Forslund, pp. 195-196.
  6. The team had previously experimented with mirror photography and exposures in Dödskyssen (Kiss of Death, 1916), to show Sjöström in a dual role, and the Lagerlöf adaptation Ingmarssönerna (The Sons of Ingmar, 1919). Jaenzon also created the double exposure visions, dreams and haunted memories of an earlier Lagerlöf adaptation, Herr Arnes pengar (Sir Arne’s Treasure, 1919), by Sjöström’s friend and sometime director, Mauritz Stiller. Forslund, pp. 53, 80, 87.
  7. Sjöström acted in many of Strindberg’s plays as a travelling actor; staged The Outlaw in 1911 – eliciting a grumpy telegram from the writer – and To Damascus in 1915; directed his ex-wife Harriet Bosse in her debut film, The Sons of Ingmar, and planned to film the author’s Miss Julie on his return to Sweden from Hollywood in 1930. Forslund, pp. 24, 25, 28, 79-80, 232.
  8. Olle Granath, “A Writer’s Eye”, and David Campany, “Art, Science and Speculation: August Strindberg’s Photographics”, in August Strindberg: Painter, Photographer, Writer, ed. Olle Granath, Tate Publishing, London, 2005, pp. 29, 115, 118.
  9. In the novel Georges says, “I am afraid you have gone farther astray than I was aware of, for how else could these dreadful marks have been carven round your eyes and mouth?” Selma Lagerlöf, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, trans. William Frederick Harvey, Odhams, London, 1921, p. 51.
  10. The Swedish title translates as “The Coachman”. In the novel, the stories are distributed among different narrators. Alrik Gustafson writes that Lagerlöf’s “chief concern [as a literary artist] seems to be in conduct of the story as such” (italics in original). Gustafson, Six Scandinavian Novelists: Lie, Jacobsen, Heidenstam, Selma Lagerlöf, Hamsun, Sigrid Undset, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1966 (first published in 1940), p. 189.
  11. For example, Selma Lagerlöf, Gösta Berling’s Saga. Part 1, trans. Lillie Tudeer, American-Scandinavian Foundation, New York, 1918, p. 42.
  12. Gustafson, pp. 178, 192, 207, 221.
  13. Gustafson (p. 207) refers to the “severely didactic tone” of passages in Gösta Berling’s Saga. The translation is illustrated with portraits of the actors and stills from the film. Lagerlöf, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, passim.
  14. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-four Films, trans. Stanley Hochman, Roundhouse, Oxford, 1979 (first published as Hitchcock, 1957), p. ix.
  15. Forslund speaks of the “problem of guilt” as a recurring Sjöström theme. Forslund, pp. 89, 109.
  16. Gustafson notes the use of the Faust story in Lagerlöf’s most famous work, Gösta Berling’s Saga (1891). Gustafson, pp. 192-193.
  17. Peter Cowie, Swedish Cinema, A. Zwemmer and A.S. Barnes, London and New York, 1966, p. 20.
  18. Forslund notes that this film’s central character, an alcoholic whose family abandons him, looks forward to David Holm. Other earlier Sjöström works, such as Sonad skuld (Guilt Redeemed, 1914), I prövningens stund (In the Hour of Trial, 1915), and Karin Ingmarsdotter (1920; a Lagerlöf adaptation), feature drunks and tramps. Forslund, pp. 39-40, 49, 50-51, 83.

Körkarlen/The Phantom Carriage (1921 Sweden 103 mins)

Prod Co: Svensk Filmindustri Dir: Victor Sjöström Scr: Victor Sjöström, based on the novel by Selma Lagerlöf Phot: J. Julius [Julius Jaenzon]

Cast: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander, Lisa Lundholm