I don't know of a better film from the silent era than Victor Sjostrom's masterpiece THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. Of course, that's just another way of saying that I don't know of one that I like better. I suppose plenty of people would nominate Lang's METROPOLIS or Griffith's INTOLERANCE or von Stroheim's GREED--and while those are great films, all three of them seem to groan under the weight of their own ambition. They were all conceived as epics of one kind or another, as proof of the greatness of their makers.
I'm not knocking ego, and I'm not suggesting that Sjostrom was immune to ego, but I am saying that THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is a film that is as ambitious as any film of its time without drawing attention to how ambitious it is. There are no grand sets or outlandish shooting locales, just a sprawling story of life and death, of sin and redemption.
The movie stars Sjostrom himself as David Holm, a drunk who has abandoned his long suffering wife and two small children. He's drinking away New Year's Eve with a couple of friends, recalling how his deceased friend Georges once told him a legend that the last soul to die on New Year's Eve was forced to drive Death's carriage for the next year, collecting the souls of the recently departed, and bearing witness to unrelenting suffering.
I hesitate to disclose much more of the plot--and I recommend that would-be viewers stay clear of such details--because one of the pleasures of the film is the way it unfolds information through an intricate series of flashbacks that keep pulling us into the past while adding drama to the present. For people who think Welles (or, hell, Tarantino) invented the backtracking narrative, this film should come as a shock. Here's a story that is as densely packed as a great novel (it was based on the novel KORKARLEN by Selma Lagerlof), that respects our ability to keep up and follow along. This pays off toward the end, as the story builds to some of the most intense moments in silent cinema. (Without giving anything away: there's a moment toward the end of this movie that is as suspenseful as anything in NOSFERATU.)
At the time, the film was famous for its central special effect: the sophisticated use of double exposures that gives Death's carriage and the souls of the departed the apparitional quality of ghosts. While this effect, on a technological level, has today been rendered little more than a camera trick, its aesthetic impact in the film itself is undeniable. These images, over 90 years old as I write this, have a haunted quality that's only been compounded over time. David Holm's dark odyssey with death is as powerful now as it's ever been. Maybe more.
Having said all that, the film does have a decidedly disappointing ending. It's difficult to say whether or not the ending disappoints because it adheres to outdated notions of redemption--and I mean "outdated" only in the sense that the type of modern audience likely to see the film today has probably already rejected the idea of spiritual redemption. (The type of movie geeks who watch silent Swedish masterpieces are a pretty agnostic lot.) But perhaps the ending here disappoints because it adheres to melodramatic convention as a way to tie up a story that has otherwise been richly textured and brutally fatalistic.
So is the ending a reflection of the glory of spiritual redemption, or is glorious spiritual redemption itself just a story some people like to tell themselves, a kind of tacked-on happy ending to life's preordained bummer of an ending? I guess it depends on your religion.
The most famous fan of the film was Ingmar Bergman, a disciple of Sjostrom who would later cast the great director as the old professor in WILD STRAWBERRIES. Watching Bergman's films, you can see the director wrestling with THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE-- most clearly in THE SEVENTH SEAL, in which the characters face the spectral figure of death without the benefit of either melodramatic or spiritual redemption; but also in something like WINTER LIGHT, in which a priest who loses his faith manages to find a redemption of sorts.
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is available in a beautiful edition from the Criterion Collection, which is available for streaming on HuluPlus.