Monday, December 19, 2011

Körkarlen: Christian Stories and Christlike Storytelling

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.
David Holm, the protagonist who dies in the first act of the film only to be visited by the haunting carriage of the title, is, like Dickens' penny-pincher, haunted by his horrific past—but David Holm's sins are far more damning than Scrooge's misanthropic miserliness; Holm's descent into drink and illness (both physical and spiritual), extraordinarily realized through Sjöstrom's direction and his astounding central performance, is a truly hellish journey. While Dickens opts for easy (and effective) sentimentality, focusing on a man drained of his innate goodness, Sjöstrom's David Holm is something far more frightening—a convert to evil, a destructive agent who bitterly and vengefully uses his illness to infect and destroy others. Even the structure, while lifted from Dickens, is complicated by an almost labyrinthine Proustianism—flashbacks occur within flashbacks, and the chronology and context only gradually come into focus, like a memory or a nightmare (or a memory of a nightmare). Lagerlöf's original purpose in writing the story is evident in Holm's lethal handkerchief—a warning against the ways in which communicative disease may be spread—even as the story's complex structure and emphasis on character elevate it from public service announcement into something far more enduringly mythological. As dramatized by Sjöstrom, David Holm's fall is deliberately and dramatically biblical; Holm's family life is depicted as edenic, with a stark contrast between the rippling, sunlit farm field exteriors and the dark, murky, eternal night of the studio-bound city scenes that chronicle his drinking and destruction, self- and otherwise. Coming on the heels of Sweden's Industrial Revolution, Körkarlen is, among other things, a romantic ode to a simpler time and a lament for an increasingly ugly and dirty world, with Holm's spiritual corruption mirrored by his decaying surroundings. But, while Holm's fall from grace is classically Old Testament, his climactic redemption is just as thoroughly Christian; Körkarlen is the parable of the prodigal son brought to life in terrifying and profoundly moving detail, a sermon on mercy and a demonstration that even the most apparently hopeless and corrupt of souls is not beyond the transformative love of Christ. The embodiment of that pure love in the film is Edit, the Salvation Army girl who sees David at his worst and loves him nevertheless, seemingly without reason (when she sews up the rips in his jacket, he makes sure she is there to watch as he violently tears them back out again). In the film's finale, Edit's sacrificial death miraculously and paradoxically brings David back to life, providing both he and his family with a second chance. Lagerlöf was commissioned to write an essay on preventing disease; what she and Sjöstrom came up with was one of the most beautiful religious parables of the 20th century.
The didactic possibilities of Körkarlen were recognized and seized upon for its American release, which re-edited the film into a straightforwardly linear cautionary tale fit for the Prohibition era—the story of a good man turned bad by drink. While the complex series of flashbacks in Sjöstrom's original film give the material powerful psychological complexity, the American release ironically jettisoned the complicatedly Dickensian structure in an apparent move towards reassuringly Dickensian melodrama; the American edit uses the individual character as a means by which to highlight the social problem, whereas Sjöstrom uses the social problem to give definition and dynamism to a fully-rounded and complicated character, the focus of his story. It's an approach that would seem to reflect Sweden's own more nuanced political response to problems surrounding alcohol, with the implementation of a ration rather than an outright prohibition—a moderation and understanding of circumstance that may well be the difference between propagandizing and storytelling, between Lagerlöf's commissioned essay and her resulting story. It is Christlike compassion for the individual and charitable attention to detail that transforms the mere distribution of information into the communal and potentially transformative experience of storytelling.
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 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).

No comments: