Körkarlen (1921)

I had the privilege of seeing Victor Sjöström‘s silent ghost story The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen). I also had the experience nearly ruined by live musical accompaniment. Normally, I will defend modern groups like Alloy Orchestra or Text of Light who create new scores for old films. I cannot defend the Dropp Ensemble. Their droning, overpowering score dominated the experience, reducing the film to a projected backdrop. What you ended up with was an experience that was really more about hte group and their music than the movie. In another setting or a different context, I would have certainly enjoyed their performance – though I still have a hard time watching people perform music on laptops.  My problem with their music. No, what I objected to was the fact that their electronic, experimental music felt wholly incongruent with the film itself.

Körkarlen is an amazing movie in terms of story structure, optical effects, and tone. Told in a very non-linear fashion, the films revolves around a Swedish legend that the soul to die at the stroke of midnight must become the driver of the Phantom Carriage. For one year, this poor doomed soul must pick up the souls of the dead and deliver them to Death’s door.

Three drunks amuse each other on New Year’s Eve with this ghost tale, but when their joking turns to drunken violence one of them dies right before the stroke of midnight. It turns out that the dead drunk is a fellow by the name of David Holm, a notorious lush and perhaps one of the rudest, meanest bastard ever put on film. The current driver of the Phantom Carriage and David examine his past sins and in the end, he comes to see the error of his ways. He promises to change and is sparred a tenure behind the reigns of the Phantom Carriage.

Until that moment of redemption, the film is a dark affair. Besides watching David torment and torture all those who try to love him, the film nearly ends with him  being forced to watch his wife poison herself and the children. Of course, this is the event that brings David around. Though, she almost does it. I really thought this was going to be bleakest film I’d ever seen, but alas a cop out. Still, I was so involved in the film that I could almost completely block out the grating score being pumped out by the Dropp Ensemble.

It was a brand new 35mm print, that opened with the Janus title card, and looked like a lot of restoration work had been done. So, I am assuming that the film will soon being coming to Criterion. Let’s hope they find a better score, or at least I can just turn the sound off when I watch them it at home.  But, how often is one going to get a chance to see this thing projected and why should such a rare experience be nearly ruined by such a wrongheaded choice in music?


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