Every summer, Ingmar Bergman would settle down to watch his personal print of The Phantom Carriage, the flickering images once more transfixing him. “It was my first really big cinematic experience,” he explained. “Even now I can’t really make out what it was that captured me so utterly.” Directed by Victor Sjöström, who Bergman would so memorably and meaningfully cast as the aged professor in Wild Strawberries, this mournful, magical horror story eyeballs malicious drunkard David Holm (Sjöström) as he’s killed in a brawl on the stroke of New Year. For him, though, it’s just the beginning, his filthy spirit charged with loading souls into the titular chariot.
Using superimposition and double-exposure to bring the rickety wagon and its wretched occupants to ghostly life, The Phantom Carriage balances visual poetry with emotional violence. This is Bergman’s favourite movie, after all, and it throbs with torment, remorse and vicious confrontation (“I’ll come to show you God didn’t give a fig about you and your twaddle,” lashes one intertitle). There’s empathy and hope, too – attributes often overlooked in Bergman’s own work – while the image of Death, cloaked and clutching a scythe, would dominate The Seventh Seal 37 years later.
This two-disc package also contains Bergman’s illuminating teleplay The Image Makers (2000). Set in a single room as Sjöström (Lennart Hjulström) screens his adaptation of The Phantom Carriage to the source novel’s author, Selma Lagerlöf (Anita Björk, riveting), it’s a bluntly photographed but scalpel-sharp dissection of life, art and – naturally – the tortured psyche.