*. Sentimentality has a genealogy. It got its start in the eighteenth century as a heightened emotionalism grounded in an excess of empathy (then known as “feeling,” or “sensibility”). It had its merits as a literary movement, but always walked a thin line, in danger of slipping into mawkish, melodramatic tears and pity.
*. Today we live in a far harder-hearted world. We are deeply suspicious of tears, seeing them as a sign of weakness not to be indulged in an environment of constant Darwinian struggle. We look back upon the popular fiction, theatre, and film of yesteryear and smile and shake our heads. Do we cry over the death of Little Nell today? And Chaplin, isn’t he a little much?
*. The Phantom Carriage is based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but is largely unread today (which is indicative of that shift in sensibilities). The Nobel committee praised her writing for its “lofty idealism,” which, by ours standards, would have really been saying something in 1909.
*. The screenplay, however, seems to owe more to Dickens’ Christmas Carol. And Chaplin thought it the greatest film ever made. So there’s the genealogy of sentimentality playing out. This is a pre-modern, nineteenth-century film despite its tricks and scrambled narrative structure.
*. Nothing dates like sentiment, not even the science of filmmaking. The technique of multiple exposures used here to present the ghosts was impressive at the time, but it soon came to seem an easy gimmick and clichéd convention.
*. The most sentimental works of art also contain their opposite, as the other side of the melodramatic coin. The Phantom Carriage is a movie filled with human evil and brutal squalor. The cinematography is beautiful, but it gives us interiors that recall the urban photography of Jacob Riis. And could you find a worse piece of wreckage than David Holm, who even threatens to infect his children with his tuberculosis as a way of getting back at his wife (and the world)? But then even his wife plans on killing the children when she takes her own life. Sentiment spreads its roots in the ground of dirty realism.
*. I don’t mean to suggest by any of this that The Phantom Carriage is a bad film. In fact, it’s a great film. But there are reasons why it isn’t well known today. It describes an alien time and sensibility, one we feel little sympathy for. Just the notion that a monster like David Holm can be redeemed strikes most of us as false. Who really believes in his spiritual evolution/transformation? People like that don’t change. Of course the film is a fantasy, but its moral is fantastic as well.
*. Then there is the bizarre love triangle between David, his wife, and Edit. There’s no denying the sexual element here, and the psychic bond David and Edit seems to share only amplifies it. They belong together, and I don’t mean on a spiritual plane. This gives the ending a rather odd flavour, as it’s a let-down that David is reunited with his family. He should have moved on. He’ll be back drinking again soon.
*. I think the other reason it isn’t watched as much today is that the things it does really well are things that are no longer that important. I think the performances are very good silent film performances, managing to be understated in a way you don’t often see. I think the fact that Victor Sjöström was such a large man helped. He didn’t have to play the role big because he already was: a big face on a big frame.
*. The other element that stands out is the photography I mentioned earlier. Not, however, the ghost effect, which I didn’t much care for (and which in the case of the drowned man is actually kind of funny). But the bedroom and tavern scenes are wonderfully lit and have impressive depth of field, shooting through doorways and such. I imagine being able to shoot at a brand new, state-of-the-art film studio helped, but all the various tricks of the cameraman’s trade are here invested with artistic and emotional weight.
*. It all adds up to a movie that I respect a great deal, but one that seems too much like a historical artefact now. Not all art is timeless.