The Phantom Carriage

1st December 2020 (19:00 - 20:15)Zoom




Dr Claire Thomson (UCL) will give a talk on the classic Swedish film The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen in Swedish, literally ‘the coachman’). This talk marks the centenary of the première of the film on 1 January 1921. Adapted from the 1912 novella by Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage is considered to be one of the most important works of the silent cinema and of its director Victor Sjöström. Sjöström is often referred to as the father of Swedish cinema and was a great influence on Ingmar Bergman who cast him in what is now his best known role, as Professor Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957).

In The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström, in addition to directing the film, plays the leading part, David Holm. Technically, the film was well ahead of its time, with innovative special effects, deep focus and flashbacks within flashbacks, that remain effective and evocative today. The film is based on a legend that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is doomed to take the reins of Death’s carriage and spend the whole year collecting the souls of the dead. David Holm is an alcoholic scoundrel who has abandoned his family and rejected the help offered to him by the Salvation Army. Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve he is killed in a brawl with another drunk. He becomes an apparition and is forced to revisit his past in a series of flashbacks.

Claire Thomson is Associate Professor of Scandinavian Film and Director of Film Studies at UCL. Claire often features The Phantom Carriage in her teaching, and the film never fails to enthral students from all over the world. Claire is the author of the books Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (Seattle, 2013), Short Films from a Small Nation (Edinburgh, 2018), and co-editor of A History of Danish Cinema (Edinburgh, 2021).

Selma Lagerlöf’s novella The Phantom Carriage is available in English from Norvik Press, translated by Peter Graves.