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The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) (1921)

Gibbs, J. ORCID: and Pye, D. (2018) The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) (1921). In: Silent Features. Exeter University Press, Exeter, pp. 73-90.

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The reputation of The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) as one of the major films of Swedish silent cinema is in some respects securely established. Yet the film has attracted surprisingly little detailed discussion. It may be that its most striking stylistic features have deflected or discouraged closer scrutiny. Tom Gunning, for instance, in making the case for Sjöström’s Masterman, argues that ‘Körkarlen wears its technique on its sleeve, overtly displays its unquestionable mastery of superimposition and complex narrative structure. Mästerman tucks its mastery of editing and composition up its sleeve, so to speak’. This article makes an argument for a different evaluation of The Phantom Carriage, bringing a critical and interpretative understanding of the film’s style into conversation with the historical accounts of film form which predominate in the scholarship around silent cinema. It suggests that the film achieves ‘mastery of editing and composition’ with a flexibility and fluidity in the construction of dramatic space that is in itself remarkable for its period, but that Sjöström’s achievements extend well beyond his handling of film space. Specifically, it discusses a segment which is in several respects at the heart of the film: the first meeting between the two central characters, David Holm (Victor Sjöström) and Sister Edit (Astrid Holm); it spans the film’s exact mid-point; and at almost twelve and a half minutes it is the longest uninterrupted passage to take place in a single setting. The chapter argues that the dramatic and structural centrality of the hostel segment is paralleled by its remarkably rich articulation of the relationships between action, character and space. We show how Sjöström’s creation of a three-dimensional filmic space - with no hint of frontality - becomes the basis for a reciprocal relationship between spatial naturalism and performance style, and for a mise-en-scene that can take on discrete interpretive force. The argument also places the hostel sequences within the film as a whole in order to show how relationships articulated through the detailed decisions in this section take on their full resonance within patterns and motifs that develop across the film.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Arts and Communication Design > Film, Theatre & Television
ID Code:47348
Uncontrolled Keywords:The Phantom Carriage, Körkarlen, Sjöström, space, editing, doors, touching, eyeline match, three-dimensional space, sound, Selma Lagerlöf, light, motif, interior space, Swedish cinema, Svensk Filmindustri, Julius Jaenzon
Publisher:Exeter University Press

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