Körkarlen [The Phantom Carriage] (1921) + Matti Bye Ensemble

Körkarlen is a movie by Victor Sjöström, based on Selma Lagerlöf‘s book and starring Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg and Astrid Holm. It was shown in the Konzerthaus with live music by Matti Bye played by the Matti Bye Ensemble as part of their Film and Music Cylce. [Here’s my review of the other shows in the cycle.]

Edit (Astrid Holm) is a dilligent social worker in the Salvation Army. She was infected with tuberculosis a year earlier and is now dying from it. On her deathbed she asks to see David Holm (Victor Sjöström), the town’s worst and violent drunk she has been trying to reform. But David refuses to come: it’s New Year’s Eve, he’s out drinking with friends and telling them a story he heard: Whoever is the last one to die in the old year will become Death itself in the next year and will have to collect the souls. As fate will have it, this year it’s David’s turn: When the clock strikes midnight, he dies and meets his old friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) who was Death for the past year. Together they take a look at all of David’s errors and assholery in life.

The movie was brilliantly done. The story is quite… old, especially in its morale. But you could tell that intelligent people ware involved in the making of this. Real star of the show was the music though. Absolutely brilliant.

I wish I could point you to a video where you could see the film in combination with the music. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be one (at least here you can listen to the music a little bit). Not that the music wasn’t really good on its own. But it was great to see how Bye went along with the film, how the music fit, emphasised certain points and at other points created the perfect backdrop to let the movie’s haunting imagery take over. Also, there was some BRAAAAAAHHHM.

The movie itself was very well done – Sjöström was quite the genius with double exposure and there was some pretty cool usage of color filters to make up for the black-and-whiteness. [When they were outside, there was a blue filter, inside yellow or brown, and in some dramatic scenes there was red.]

Also, Kubrick must have been a huge fan of this film. His color work in Eyes Wide Shut reminded me of the filter use here [though it’s been a while that I’ve seen EWS and that might not hold up in closer comparison] and the famous Shining-axe-through-door-scene is basically a direct quote.

The performances were really good – especially Sjöström – and were done with quite a modern sensibility (unlike most silent movies, not everybody seemed to completely and weirdly overact). But just this modernity in the technical aspects is quite at odds with the antiquity of the story.

It’s not that the characters were behaving in a way I couldn’t understand (Edit’s attraction to David was firmly rooted in her character and the relationship between David and his wife is a pretty spot-on depiction of abuser and victim), but the way David is redeemed – apart from feeling a little out of place in its drama in an otherwise very realistic (about social circumstances, not the part with Death) film – kinda insulted my 21st century sensibilities*.

Or maybe it had nothing to do with the 90 years that have passed since the making of this movie and what bothered me was how completely the film was with David – even though there was no real redeeming quality about him at all until the very end. Maybe it was a combination of the two.

Summarising: If you get the chance, see this film with Matti Bye’s music. If you don’t get this chance, see it with different music.

*21st Century Sensibilities: Awesome band name? I think so.

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