Körkarlen, released in Sweden in 1921, was the fourth of director Victor Sjöstrom's adaptations of Selma Lagerlöf's stories. In 1912, Lagerlöf was commissioned to write an informational piece on the dangers of tuberculosis, and, with a sister and a niece who both suffered from the illness, it was a sensitive subject for the author. Instead of an essay, Lagerlöf opted to communicate the same message through fiction, writing a novel that borrowed the basic structure of Dickens' A Christmas Carol and adapted it into a far bleaker, far more terrifying, and even more deeply redemptive tale set at the dawn of the New Year.
Sjöstrom's background in the theater is evident in his simple framing, detailed design, and especially in the focus on the performances to carry the story—but while Körkarlen harkens back to a classical mode of silent storytelling, the film was also blazing bold new trails in Swedish cinema. Sjöstrom, a pioneer in shooting on location, moved most of the production indoors to create the controlled environment necessary for the dozens of complicated special effects shots. The decision paid off. The ghostly, double-exposed phantom carriage is no mere gimmick—the image casts an eerie, otherworldly shadow over the entire story (early in the film, we see the carriage riding over the waters of the ocean—it goes anywhere, there is no escape), and it also allows for some striking mis-en-scene, as when, in the midst of the cemetery, a single white cross shines through the center of the transparent carriage. It's an image that encapsulates the thematic thrust of the entire story—a glimmer of hope in the midst of death and decay. In Körkarlen, Death's carriage is physicalized, but God's mercy is something quieter—it must be taken on faith. In the midst of a lone and dreary world, surrounded by horrors, and even in the heart of death itself (both physical and spiritual) there is the possibility for redemption and renewal. Sjöstrom's film depicts a bleak world of seemingly insurmountable sin, and Christian love—that is to say, perfect and unconditional love—is more necessary here than anywhere.
You can watch Körkarlen (a.k.a., The Phantom Carriage) for free at Archive.org. It's also available for sale through the Criterion label, with a beautiful new transfer and a slew of great extras (including two great scores).