The Phantom Chariot (1921) and Burglars (1930)

phantom-chariot-10     burlgars-5

The Phantom Chariot (1920) and Burglars (1930)

Original Title: KÖRKARLEN

Several years ago, I saw The Phantom Chariot at Cinefest in Syracuse.  She may not remember it at the moment, but after it was over, Ronda and I turned to each other in a bit of awe, saying that this film was quite something.  Others have mentioned over the years that they also thought it was quite spectacular and so when I found a Criterion blue-ray copy on sale, I snatched it up.  I know that at least one other person here tonight has seen it, but since Chris is here and this should be a really fine copy of the film, I believe it will be a worthwhile re-watch.

The story is based on the novel by Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf who won, among other honors, the Nobel Prize “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterizes her writings”.  Other famous films made from her novels are Mauritz Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) and The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924) and the 1996 Jerusalem which I remember seeing, possibly at TIFF.

The original title for this film is Körkarlen but it is known in English by the two titles of The Phantom Chariot or The Phantom Carriage.  From what I gather, it was made in 1920 and released in 1921, but you can research the film using all titles and both years.

Swedish director Victor Sjöström is famous for several films, especially for the ones he made in Hollywood such as He Who Gets Slapped (1924) with Lon Chaney—which some of you saw here when I showed it in June 2014—The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928) with Lillian Gish and The Divine Woman (1928), a lost film starring fellow country-woman Greta Garbo.  He stopped directing films after 1937 but he continued to act.  He was a major inspiration for director Ingmar Bergman and Sjöström’s last role was in his Wild Strawberries (1957).

In tonight’s film, he plays the main character.  Although I am not original in my thinking, The Phantom Chariot is a perfect film for the holiday season.  It’s a drama about bad behaviour and redemption, reminiscent of A Christmas Carol, but certainly the main character, David Holm, is nothing like Ebenezer Scrooge.  And particularly being a Swedish film, it has a lot more darkness, which probably has nothing to do with the fact that the people of Sweden had suffered from a lack of Vitamin D for so many aeons, but I take pride in that theory.

If you have seen the film The Locket (1946) and were intrigued with the flashbacks within flashbacks, you will have an interesting time keeping track of all the flashbacks occurring in this 1920 film.  This narrative device is as advanced as the double exposures that are used throughout the telling of the story.

So, make sure your glasses are full and here’s hoping you all enjoy the film as much as I did.  Caren

Saturday, December 17, 2016
Svensk Filmindustri.  Direction by Victor Sjöström.  Produced by Charles Magnusson.  Based on the novel by Selma Lagerlöf and adapted by Victor Sjöström.  Cinematography by Julius Jaenzon.  Art Direction by Alexander Bako and Axel Esbensen

David Holm……………………………………………………. Victor Sjöström
Mrs. Holm……………………………………………………. Hilda Borgström
Georges……………………………………………………… Tore Svennberg
Edit……………………………………………………………….. Astrid Holm
Edit’s Mother……………………………………………. Concordia Selander
Maria………………………………………………………….. Lisa Lundholm
Gustafsson………………………………………………………. Tor Weijden
David’s Brother……………………………………………… Einar Axelsson
Driver………………………………………………………………… Olof Ås
Prison Chaplain………………………………………………….. Nils Aréhn
David’s Companion……………………………………… Simon Lindstrand
David’s Companion……………………………………………… Nils Elffors
Worker……………………………………………………. Algot Cunnarsson
Worker’s wife………………………………………………… Hildur Lithman
Police constable……………………………………………….. John Ekman


In an extensive article on the life and career of Victor Sjöström (Films in Review, May and June-July, 1960), Charles Turner refers to this film as “his masterpiece, both as actor and director”.  It was the first film to be made in the newly built Svensk Filmindustri studios (which now produce Bergman’s films).  “Even before the building was finished”, Sjöström wrote 25 years later, “I shot the first scenes, the New Year’s scenes in the churchyard.  Now that we had so much good space we could afford to build both the church and the churchyard in the studio”.  The Phantom Chariotwas also variously known as Korkarlen, at the Stoke of Midnight, and Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness.  The story has been remade in sound versions both in Sweden and in France (by Julien Duvivier as La Charette Fantome).

Comment by Critics and Film Historians:
Bardeche and Brasillach: ” Sjöström’s most famous film–this story of the redemption of David Holm, a drunkard beloved by a pious young girl, was not properly understood in the Latin Countries, and many of the Salvationist scenes were cut out, such as the one in which the girl persuades Holm’s wife to take him back, thus bringing tragedy to them and their children.  There was more fatalism and more intelligence in the piece than the cinemas could accept readily.  What drew both the general public and the highbrows to the film, and made it one of the most famous of all films–as famous as The Gold RushCaligari, and Potemkin, were the scenes in which David meets his old boon companion George, who had died on New Year’s Eve, and so becomes driver of the ghostly cart that comes to collect the souls of sinners.  This supernatural figure, who was the focal point of the human story of Selma Lagerlof, also dominated the film to such a point as to obscure its other qualities.  The film seems rather old-fashioned to us today, partly because of its somewhat excessive moralizing, and partly too because technically it was at the time so very important and so new.  It seemed literally dazzling then; now it seems almost obvious.  It was the first time that the supernatural world had been brought to the screen with anything like so much talent, but Sjöström had tried to express the supernatural and make thought tangible by means of the rather tedious use of double exposure.  Later on it was to be realized that this method of showing one rather dim image over another fairly distinct image, in order to convey a hidden thought or spiritual truth, is an extremely material and physical device, and an erroneous one.  The moment it is translated into the perceptible, the invisible is invisible no longer, but just a clever photographic trick.  Nevertheless, some of the scenes in The Phantom Chariot are of remarkable brilliance and rare emotional power.   Sjöström possessed a marked ability to visualize and to compose, and he loved nature with intense passion.  Therefore, in the “vision” scenes, one enjoys most the wide empty road on which, as in a dream, the strange equipage of the death driver suddenly looms through the fog and the rain.  The road, the sea, the cemetery carry us to the realms of poetry and of piety as powerfully as when the film was made.  At the same time the grave bearing of the participants makes us realize that the film can really at times attain artistic perfection by the truths it reveals through the human face and the human body.”

Rune Waldektranz in Swedish Cinema: “Here  Sjöström arrived at a synthesis of the naturalism of his early films and the charming lyricism of his Ingmar trilogy, a romantic realism perfectly suited to Selma Lagerlof’s story of the struggle between good and evil in human nature.  Assisted brilliantly by his cameraman, he transformed an incredible legend into a stirring motion picture; in the leading role, he himself created a portrait that stands practically alone in its time for its naturalness and lack of theatrical exaggeration.”

Forsyth Hard in Scandinavian Film: “This story would have made a moving film whatever its treatment; it was made outstanding by the place given to the supernatural in the expression of the theme.  There had been a hint of this technique in Stiller’s Herr Arne’s Treasure, but here it was elaborated until it became an integral part of the film.  Some of the scenes of the ghostly carriage moving along a shadowed road had a strange beauty which has never been equalled in cinema.  From the beginning the Swedish cameramen had served the directors well, bringing a flow of sensitively evocative pictures to the screen.  Julius Jaenzon’s work in The Phantom Chariot helped both to enrich the director’s expression of his theme and to bring international recognition to the technical achievement of the Swedish films.   Sjöström’s performances were seldom less than powerful, but his acting in The Phantom Chariot showed a studied restraint.  The exaggerated gestures of some of the early films had gone, but the intensity of feeling was still there.”


In Memoriam:  Victor Sjöström (1879-1960):
“The grand old man of Swedish cinema” was one of the most noted pioneers of the serious silent film.  Together with Mauritz Stiller (Sir Arne’s Treasure, Gosta Berling) he made a distinguished place for his country in the cinema’s early years, both acting in and directing a series of films advanced for their time in theme, technique and style.  Among his better known works: The Outlaw and His Wife, Ingeborg Holm, Terje Vigen, Karin Ingmarsdotter, and tonight’s film. Brought to Hollywood in 1923, he stayed seven years and made a generally impressive group of pictures, including The Wind and The Scarlet Letter with Lillian Gish; He Who Gets Slapped with Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert; The Tower of Lies with Chaney and Shearer; Masks of the Devil with Gilbert; The Divine Woman with Garbo; and Name the Man with Mae Busch and Conrad Nagel.  In 1930 he made one U.S. talkie, A Lady to Love, then returned to his homeland where he remained (except for a trip to England to make Under the Red Robe).  After directing one Swedish sound film, he confined his activities to acting for the stage and screen, crowning his career with his masterly performance as Dr. Isak Borg in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, for which he received the rare gold plaque of the Swedish Film Academy.  Toward the end of his life he was bitterly unhappy about the death of his last wife.  Though continuing with theatre work, he was ill throughout 1959 and died on January 3, 1960.

Fellow Scandinavian Directors on Sjöström:
Carl Dreyer: “World War I gave Swedish films their big opportunity–and Sjöström knew it.  Film-making was partly or wholly paralyzed in belligerent countries.  Swedish film-makers were confronted with task of producing enough films to supply Swedish theatres, since few if any pictures were being imported.  What more natural than for Swedish film-makers to change for ‘international’ to ‘national’ subject matter and turn to the treasures of Swedish literature, especially the work of Selma Lagerlof, which was rooted in the legends and national chronicles of Swedish past?  Sjöström and Stiller were quick to grasp the chance Lagerlof provided.  The chance was probably a greater one for Sjöström.  He was Swedish in thought and mentality, to his very backbone.  It was through the new visual effects in Sjöström’s films that Selma Lagerlof’s special Puritan spirit and beauty were transferred to the screen.  He put into the stylized figures of her novels the warm humanity and feelings of his own heart.  Under his hands noble spirit was combined with noble form.  Also, Lagerlof’s predilection for dreams and supernatural events appealed to Sjöström’s own somewhat sombre artistic mind.  It was with such scenes that Sjöström carried film into the realm of art and poetry.  And with innumerable scenes in The Phantom Chariot, a bright exclamation mark at the end of the Swedish film’s days of glory. Ingmar Bergman is probably the one who comes closest to inheriting this tradition.”

Ingmar Bergman:  (who was aided and encouraged by Sjöström, and acknowledges his debt to him.  He has said that whenever he makes a film he has always the model of Sjöström and his Swedish films before him.  A picture of Sjöström hands in Bergman’s office at Svensk Filmindustri. He acted for Bergman in Till Gladje (To Joy) as well as Wild Strawberries).  Herewith a few excerpts from Bergman’s remarks at a ceremonial tribute to Sjöström at the Skandia Theatre in Stockholm:

“I cannot give a speech or memorial lecture about Victor Sjöström.  I think he would laugh ironically were he to see me in that situation.  I shall only give a few short impressions and excerpts from my diary during the filming of Wild Strawberries…what we observed during those days was a colossal fight of will against the forces of destruction which raged continuously, with victory and defeat alternating from moment to moment.  After the completion of the film, when the artist was no longer shielded by the demanding routine of work, the enemy took a pitiless revenge and pushed him into boundless suffering.  Finally he was rescued by death.”  (Following are excerpts from the diary): “He strongly rejects all insincere sympathy or affection.  He abhors those who grasp at him with soft, coddling hands and he scorns half-hearted pity…I never tire of studying, with unabashed curiosity, this mighty face.  Occasionally there passes over it a muffled shriek of pain.  Sometimes it is disfigured by suspicion and mistrust, by senile distemper.  At other times it is dissolved in self-pity, melancholy, even sentimentality.  Frequently his face is stiffened by haughty contempt, or made flabby by utter emptiness and extreme fatigue.  All of a sudden he can turn around with a smile of spontaneous tenderness, and speak with a shrewd wisdom.  How easy, the, it is to love him and to enjoy his pleasant companionship…We have finished Wild Strawberries–the final close-ups of Isak Borg arriving at understanding and reconciliation.  For these close-ups Sjöström’s face shone with a mystic brightness, as though it reflected the light of another world; his manner became mild, almost meek.  His wide-open eyes smiled tenderly.  It was marvellous–the clarity and tranquillity of soul at rest.  Never before had I contemplated a face so noble and free of care.  (End of diary excerpt).  “Yet it was all only play-acting in a dusty studio. And acting it certainly must have been.  The extremely shy Sjöström would himself never have shown outsiders his own deeply hidden treasure of absolute purity.  I was reminded by his face of the concluding works in Strindberg’s drama Stora Landsvegen–the prayer to a god somewhere in the dark:

‘Bless me, your humanity,
Who suffer from your gift of life!
And I above all, who have suffered the torments
Of inability to be my ideal self.’”

Silent Series Film Notes by Toronto Film Society, January 16, 1961


…In 1881, as a small child, Sjöström went to America with his father, Olaf, and mother, Maria Elizabeth, to whom he was devoted.  Tragically, she died when he was seven, and soon afterward his father married the family nursemaid, twenty years his junior, whom Victor did not like.  Olaf was a womanizer, twice bankrupt, and a born-again Christian.  In 1893, Victor was returned to Sweden to live with his aunt.  (By the, he was fluent in English, which was extremely valuable when, in the twenties, he returned to America.)  All his life, Sjöström feared becoming like his father, whom he closely resembled physically.  He lived frugally and was terrified, even when successful, of being without money.  Perhaps his rendering of David’s alcoholism derived from the tensions in Sjöström’s relationship with his father.  His performance is so realistically and subtly detailed that it may have come from precise memories, a ghostly reincarnation of his father, in other hands a model for a horror film.

…When The Phantom Carriage opened at the Criterion Theater in new York, it was lauded for being precisely what it was not: a cautionary tale of the evils of drink.  The distributor had completely reedited it as The Stoke of Midnight.  The legend of the Phantom Carriage didn’t come in until almost halfway.  Sjöström’s structure had been dismantled, and the film became a straightforward narrative.  As such, it works well—as a Hollywood film with a quasi-religious score performed on a cinema Wurlitzer….

Notes from Criterion’s The Phantom Carriage by Paul Mayersberg


With The Phantom Chariot (1920), Sjöström’s temporal structure becomes more complex and his visual style more blamboyant.  The film tells the story of the reformation of a drunk, David Holm (Sjöström), on the New Year’s Eve on which a Salvation Army worker who cared for him, Sister Edith (Hilda Borström), dies.  The narrative in the present takes place in just a few hours, but four intervening flashbacks fill in Holm’s prior history, mixing this retelling of the past with elements of legend and dreams.  The interweave of past and fantasy is illustrated by the first flashback, a story told by David Holm in a graveyard to his drinking buddies as they celebrate the New Year.  His tale is announced as a ghost story, but begins with the image from Holm’s past, his friendship with George; it is George who tells the ghost story within the flashback, so that its telling is embedded within the frame of images of George and David Holm at a bar.  The ghost story is the legend of the “phantom chariot” driven by the ghost of the last man to die before the New Year.  The legend is illustrated by two deaths, after which the ghost driver gathers a “double” (a superimposed image) of the corpse into his chariot: the first is a suicide of a wealthy man, the second a drowning.  (The visual rendering of the superimposed and slightly translucent chariot and ghost and the walking of the ghost through doors and beneath the sea is magnificent.)  The richly imaged legend is made more concrete by its placement in a “real” past, for the Holm’s story ends with the comment that George died late on New Year’s Eve last year, leading us to assume that the spinner of this tale became the phantom driver.

Ultimately, all the flashbacks are shown to be not supernatural events but fabrications of Holm’s own imagination; though the viewer was led to believe he has died, we learn, retrospectively, he was merely knocked unconscious.  The flashbacks occur inside a dream vision and their theme of guilt and moral responsibility is offered as the work of his own conscience (and unconscious).  Memory of the past links the supernatural, the morality tale, and the dream state in a way that recalls Charles Dicken’s The Christmas Books (1843-48), said to have been an influence on Selma Lagerlöf, the author of the novel on which the film is based.  Sjöström’s film is itself, in turn, an influence in its use of a cinematic means of expression for this ambivalence between state of dreaming, premonition, remembering, and the supernatural, a combination of montage and superimposition, techniques that certainly go back to Georges Méliès and the beginning of cinema; here they are given a kind of psychological density that seems particularly characteristic of this period of Swedish cinema.

Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History by Maureen Turim, 1989


Nobel Prize-winner Selma Lagerlöf wrote stories with a paranormal theme that were adapted by Mauritz Stiller (Sir Arne’s Treasure, 1919) and Victor Sjöström (The Phantom Chariot, 1920).  Sir Arne’s Treasure features the ghost of the heroine’s sister, murdered by one of the thieves who stole the treasure and who later courts the heroine, Elsalill.  The ghost is depicted by means of superimposition, which looks forward to Sjöström’s film.  Her objectivity, though undermined by her appearances in Elsalill’s dreams, is established by the information on her suitor that she provides, and which is verified by eavesdropping on the murderer confessing his crime.  Maureen Turim overstates the case when she claims that:

Here the supernatural apparition the dream thought, and the memory
flashback have become merged—the border between the psyche and
the fantastic is thoroughly ambiguous and it is possible to interpret all
the flashbacks and apparitions in the film either as products of
Erselille’s (sic) unconscious or as visions produced from a power
beyond the grave.

This is possible but unlikely.  The apparition evades the ambiguity ascribed to it by Turim because Elsalill would not have known, when her sister escorted her to the guildhall in her dream, that if she went there the following day she would hear the confession.  It could be argued that Elsalill was using precognition presented by her own subconscious in the form of a visit from her dead sister, but the film is couched in terms of life after death, and it is more plausible that Elsalill discovers her lover’s perfidy through the intercession of her sister than via super-ESP.

Sjöström’s The Phantom Chariot is a member of the class of films that appear to be objective events but transpire to have been a dream (a venerable device already seen in The Avenging Conscience) and of supernatural happenings that are revealed to have been hallucinations—not always as clear cut as in this case, in which there is no doubt as to the lack of veridicality of the events.  The story is based on the Breton folk-tale of the Ankou, the King of the Dead, in which the ghost of the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is obliged to drive the phantom carriage for the next year.  The ghostly driver of the eponymous Phantom Chariot is seen in a double exposure to collect the ghosts of two individuals, a suicide and drowning victim, each of whom separates from the corpse in a superimposed image.

The main character, Holm, is seen lying on the pavement but sits up, a double exposure while his “body” is still prone, as the carriage approaches him.  Walking with the driver through the wall, he is shown his destitute wife about to kill herself and their children, a scene that causes him to repent.  He wakes up on the pavement and rushes back in time to prevent his wife from committing the act.  Although Holm was supposed to have died, which would have accorded the story the status of an objective event, he was in fact unconscious, and the preceding story was the product of his fevered imagination.  This does not though explain Holm’s knowledge of his wife’s intention, except by weak appeals to telepathy or to intuition based on intimate knowledge of her psychology.

For Turim, “Memory of the past links the supernatural, the morality tale, and the dream state in a way that recalls Charles Dicken’s The Christmas Books (1843-48), said to have been an influence on Lagerlöf,” a technique that Turim claims also harks back to Méliès.  The influence is in fact quite explicit—the novel upon which The Phantom Carriage was based is called My Christmas Carol.  Like Scrooge, Holm, by being allowed to eavesdrop on a scene that works on his conscience, is allowed a second chance, and rather than withdrawing from the world is enabled to intervene with a good act, so redeeming his soul.  Ingmar Bergman was probably influenced by the image of Death in the film, with scythe and cowled hood, when making The Seventh Seal (1956), and the chance to review one’s life can be seen in Wild Strawberries (1957).  The Dickensian Christmas also features in Fanny and Alexander (1982).

Ghost Images: Cinema of the Afterlife by Tom Ruffles, 2004


The question of when and where the horror genre was brought to life has been, and will perhaps always be, a subject of many heated debates.  Some film historians like to look for it near the end of the 19th century, in the early works of Georges Méliès (whose 1896 shorts Une Nuit Terrible and Le Manoir du Diable showed, respectively, a man being attacked by a giant spider, and a bat metamorphosing into Mephistopheles); some are quite certain that it was Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener’s The Student of Prague (1913) that brought all the necessary elements together; others claim that proper horrors weren’t brought to the screen until after World War I, when they were disguised as masterpieces of German Expressionism (for example, 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and 1922’s Nosferatu); and yet others argue that no movie before 1931’s Dracula can really be labeled a genuine horror movie.  All the aforementioned films were, however, highly inspiring for the future directors, and helped shape the genre as we know it today.  Next to these early works that have been long time ago recognized as ground-breaking and influential, there are still some very important but underappreciated titles.  Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, an atmospheric depiction of the Grim Reaper’s burden, is certainly one of these.

Sjöström himself plays unlikable drunkard David Holm,w ho treats his two drunkard friends to a ghastly story.  His friend, he says, used to believe that whoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, will be cursed to drive “the Phantom Carriage” and collect the souls of the dead throughout the following twelve months; as bad luck would have it, the superstitious man passed away the previous year, exactly at the dreaded hour. Holm doesn’t think there’s any truth to the legend of the Carriage, but he savors the cruel irony of the situation.  His attitude changes only after he has to deal with irony of fate himself: not long after having told the grim anecdote, the man is accidentally killed—at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, no less0-and his dead friend promptly approaches him and offers him the reins of the Phantom Carriage.  Suddenly, as he sees his own lifeless body lying on the ground, Holm decides that he wants to live again, and promises that this time he will live a decent life, and will try and make amends for all the things he did wrong.  The dead Carriage driver refuses to help him, and Holm panics, as fragments of his past deeds come back to haunt him in chaotic flashbacks.  We see how monstrous he was towards his wife, how careless he was about his children and how ungrateful towards a beautiful nurse who tried to help him on a number of occasions.  Among the flashbacks are also interwoven pieces of information on the present state of Holm’s wife (who’s now suicidal) and the kind-hearted nurse (who’s now on her deathbed), which constitutes a very complex and demanding structure for the early 1920s, but also mirrors the state of mind of a person who desperately tries to put his or her whole life in order just when it is announced to be over.

The realistic parts of the movie—that is, the scenes that precede Holm’s death as well as the past events revealed via flashbacks—are compelling because of Sjöström’s directorial talent for creating passages that are not overly exaggerated for effect (for the standards of the silent cinema, at least), but aim to imitate life.  Also, Sjöström’s convincingly menacing role gives the movie an edge and an aura of authenticity.  The fantastic parts, on the other hand, are impressive because of cinematographer Julius Jaenzon’s masterful handling of the trick photography.  Double exposure, also referred to as “spirit photograph” because it involves superimposition of images, so that one of them looks “ghostly,” had already been used in cinema before 1921 (it was pioneered by George Albert Smith as early as in 1898’s The Corsican Brothers), but never to quite such an extent, or with similar skillfulness, as in The Phantom Carriage.  Sjöström’s movie literally depended on the trick; after all, double exposure was used whenever the two dead men or their carriage appeared on screen. Even from today’s point of view, Jaenzon’s job is nothing short of stunning, with the “real” and “ghostly” images always matched perfectly, and always in convincing interaction, so that the viewers can actually feel as if they were caught in another dimension, somewhere in between two worlds—that of humans and that of spirits.

A year before The Phantom Carriage was released, Sjöström directed another film that might be of interest to fans of horror, 1920’s powerful gothic tale The Monastery of Sendomir, it was, however, Sjöström’s inventive tale of life, death and redemption that attracted the attention of film lovers from all over the world.  This soon brought about Sjöström’s emigration to the United States where, under the Americanized name of Victor Seastrom, he made several less structurally complex, but nevertheless impressive pictures; the most important of these were the Lon Chaney drama He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and the unforgettable study of madness The Wind (1928), the latter two starring Lillian Gish.  When the era of silent movies ended, Sjöström briefly tried his hand at talkies, but didn’t manage to equal his masterpieces and his career as a director came to a halt with the swashbuckling adventure movie Under the Red Robe (1937), with Conrad Veidt in the leading role.  Sjöström didn’t quit acting, though, and from the 1930s to the late 1950s appeared in many Swedish films.  Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) gave him his last and greatest role, and was also a tribute to The Phantom Carriage (it deals with the familiar themes of mortality, loneliness, emotional coldness and forgiveness; and here, just like in the movie he directed over three decades earlier, Sjöström plays a man who refuses to evaluate his life until the nightmarish moment when he comes face to face with his own corpse).

The Phantom Carriage is a rare example proving that in the early years of cinema, German filmmakers weren’t the only ones who could handle dark themes masterfully.  The movie has now inspired several generations of artists, genre and otherwise (most notably, Ingmar Bergman),, and allowed director Victor Sjöström with cinematographer Julius Jaenzon to perfect the “spirit photography” to a stiking effect.

The Pleasure and Pain of Cult Horror Films: An Historical Survey by Bartłomiej Paszylk, 2009


WARNING:  Detailed synopsis of the story is included in the critique below:

Körkarlen (The Phantom Chariot, 1920), the last of Sjöström’s Swedish-made adaptations of Lagerlöf’s work, combines this kind of realism with a fantastic premise and a far more complex use of flashbacks and special effects than Sjöström had ever attempted before.  The film moves freely back and forth between several different time levels and includes scenes that are straight memory, scenes that are pure fantasy, and scenes that indicate potentiality rather than actual events; the overall structure is dreamlike and revealed as possibly being a dream at the end, yet the borderlines between dream and reality are teasingly difficult to identify.  Sjöström and his cameraman, Julius Jaenzon, indicate some of the transitions by means of visual clues: dissolves to signal the beginning and end of flashbacks; multiple superimpositions and an ethereal photographic quality for the more fantastic scenes, with a starker, more strongly contrasted visual image to indicate “reality”; and, in the restored and tinted print that I saw at the Swedish Film Institute, an additional coding by means of color—a warm red tinting for the scenes of happy family life, a dull yellow for the lapse into poverty and misery, and so on.  Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that contemporary audiences found it hard to follow: in America, where it was released as The Stroke of Midnight, it was extensively re-edited to give the flashbacks a coherent and sequential chronological pattern, with a short and clearly defined “dream sequence” at the end.

The film goes one stage further than Intolerance, which had already intercut freely between four different centers of interest, widely separated in space and time; The Phantom Chariot moves back and forth between five separate narrative threads, three of them in the present and two in the past, as well as including a purely imagined sequence in which David Holm (played by Sjöström himself) recounts the legend of the phantom chariot that collects the souls of the dead and whose driver can be relieved of his task only by someone who dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.  The opening of the film brings the three present-time narratives together before splitting them up and following each of them as they move in “real” time through what is virtually a simultaneous pattern of events.  Sister Edit, a Salvation Army officer, lies on her deathbed on New Year’s Eve, and wishes to see David Holm before she dies.  David, a wastrel and an alcoholic, is sought for at his home and in the tavern, but cannot be found.  Meanwhile his haggard, despairing wife comes to Edit’s bedside to comfort her.  All this time David has been drinking with friends in the churchyard; he talks of a dead friend of his, a poverty-stricken intellectual, and then tells them about the phantom chariot which, in an elaborate fantasy sequence built up from double, triple, and even quadruple exposures, is seen collecting souls from various locations, including the bottom of the sea.  The Salvation Army officer refused to move.  His friends try to persuade him, both verbally and then by force, to go; in the struggle which follows he is struck by a bottle and his panic-stricken friends flee, leaving him for dead.  Midnight sounds and the phantom chariot, driven by David’s dead friend, appears.

On one level, time now stands still for the remainder of the film: David’s spirit rises from his body and he is told that, as punishment for his evil life, he will now have to drive the coach.  He pleads for a reprieve and is shown his life in flashback and reminded of the harm and suffering his behavior has caused to others.  The flashbacks both take place outside time” and cover, in chronological fashion, the main events of David’s life after his marriage; they are also themselves divided into two main centers of interest, one dealing with David’s family and one dealing with his meetings with /sister Edit.  At frequent intervals the flashbacks are interrupted, not only by returns to the churchyard, but by reminders of the present-time action that, paradoxically enough, continues: Sister Edit dies and David’s wife returns home, where she prepares to poison herself and her children.  In an added level of complexity, David’s spirit is allowed to visit both Edit’s deathbed and his own home, where he is forced to confront the present consequences of his actions as well and is tormented by his inability to intervene and prevent them.  These scenes are distinguished from present-time reality by means of superimpositions that make David’s body less solid and substantial than his surroundings.  There are thus really three interacting time levels in the film: David’s past; his “ghostly” present; and the real present—the last two of which occasionally overlap.


The total effect is remarkable and, in its own way, unmatched in world cinema before the 1960s.  Sjöström goes far beyond what was to become the typical flashback structure for the next forty years (most clearly incarnated in Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s), in which we begin in the present, move to a chronological and generally uninterrupted presentation of the past, and then return to a denouement in the present where the problems revealed in the flashback are given a tidy solution or explanation.  Sjöström’s method is much closer to a film like Alain Resnai’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), in which the time pattern created by the editing forces the main character into constant confrontation with and reassessment of his past actions.  Sjöström, of course, has no equivalent of Resnais’s obsession with the arbitrary and fallible nature of memory, and the flashbacks in The Phantom Chariot are assumed to be accurate representations of past events, likewise he does not venture into blurring the borderlines between past and present, dream and reality, the actual and the imagined or anticipated, in the manner of films like Last Year in Marienbad, Persona, or .  Yet the ending of the film reveals something of the incompatibility between mutually contradictory explanations of the film’s events that is characteristic of much modern cinema.  David “dies” near the beginning of the film, but his spirit is given a moment of suspended time in which to explore the actions of his past life; simultaneously with this exploration, however, two important actions take place, both of which David witnesses, but neither of which he is able to prevent: Sister Edit dies and David’s wife prepares to take poison.  Yet Sister Edit is aware of his spiritual presence and dies comforted by it.  The ghostly coach driver (who has been revealed as initially responsible for David’s descent into alcoholism) takes pity on him and agrees to reprieve him, both from the task of replacing him and (presumably) from death itself.  David wakens in the churchyard (from death? From a dream?) and hurries home in time to save his wife from carrying out her intention.  Sister Edit’s death, on the other hand, appears to be irrevocable.  The genuine modernity of the film lies in its unwillingness to settle for one “logical” explanation for the action as much as from the complexity of its structure and time-scheme.

Alcoholism is as central to the moral theme of the film as it was with Karin, Daughter of Ingmar, yet the treatment is much less strident than in the earlier film.  Though the moral seriousness remains, the emphasis is much less that of a tract against alcoholism than on the concept of moral responsibility.  The coach driver acknowledges his own responsibility for David’s downfall by continuing to drive the coach for another year, until a more suitable victim can be found; and the evocations of David’s past force him to recognize the harm he has done to others, most of it irrevocable.  After an idyllic introduction to the contentment of his early married life, which is shared by his brother, we discover the brother in prison for killing a man in a drunken brawl as a result of David’s pernicious influence on him.  His wife leaves him after failing to persuade him to mend his ways and he responds by drinking even more than before.  The family strand of the flashbacks then begins to interweave with that involving Sister Edit; David wanders into her Salvation Army hostel and allows her to try to help him by mending his jacket.  The jacket, however, is tainted with germs of the disease from which Edit will later die.  On leaving the hostel David contemptuously rips up the jacket again and sneers at Edit and her associates.

It is at this point in the present action that David is told by the coach driver the must visit Edit’s deathbed so that he can be directly confronted with the actual consequences of his deeds.  He tries to resist and to return to his “dead” body, but is overpowered by the driver; when they arrive in her room Edit is aware of the driver’s presence and, thinking that he is Death, pleads for a delay so that she can still be reconciled with David.  The film returns again to the past, with David in a tavern mocking Edit’s attempts to reason with him.  The wife of one of his friends arrives and tries to make her husband return home; David tells him to stay, but the contest of wills is won by Edit, who not only persuades the young man to leave but gets him to sign a temperance pledge at the next Salvation Army meeting.  David turns up at the meeting to jeer at his friend’s weakness and fails even to recognize his own wife, who is in the audience too.


Edit now tries to bring David and his wife together again and David undergoes a brief period of repentance.  He quickly slips back into his old ways, however, and resorts to violence when he comes home drunk one day, and his wife locks him up in the kitchen while she prepares for herself and their children to leave him for good.  David starts to break his way out with an ax, and his wife collapses under the stress and terror that he has caused her.  He restores her to consciousness before resuming his verbal abuse and storming out of the house.  We return to Edit’s room in the present as she again says that she must see David to make amends for her previous mistakes and try once more to reconcile him with his wife.  In the churchyard David’s spirit feels true remorse for t he first time and breaks free from the coach driver’s restraints to return to Edit’s bedside.  Though nothing can be done to avert her death, she is aware of his presence and his repentance and dies content.  The coach driver then takes him to his home, where David sees his wife living in misery and poverty and preparing poison for herself and her children.  He wants to intervene, but is told that he cannot turn aside the course of fate and must return to the churchyard; by this time, however, his repentance is complete and genuine.  A fade returns him to the churchyard, where he wakes up restored to life in his physical body.  He rushes home in time to save his wife and is reconciled with her; they pray together that this time his reformation is complete.

The intricate structure of the film thus forces David literally to relive his past actions and become aware of their consequences—both those that cannot be changed and those that there is still time to modify or reverse.  His reformation as a result is much more clearly motivated and much more convincing than the arbitrary poetic justice meted out in Karin, Daughter of Ingmar; it is seen as a process, at first partial and unconvincing; then more seriously, even desperately intended but coming too late to avoid the inevitable consequences of his earlier actions; finally, through force of will, it is strong enough to effect what should be a genuine change.  In this respect, as well as in the visual qualities of those parts of the film that deal with David’ relationships with his family and with Sister Edit, the film successfully works within the realistic framework established by Sjöström in Ingeborg Holm (whose leading actress, Hilda Borgström, played the role of the wife in The Phantom Chariot).  Sjöström, who gives one of his own best acting performances before his final appearance in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, used no makeup, thus accentuating the “natural” quality of his appearance in contrast to the prevailing codes of the period, where film stock and lighting generally required even men to be heavily made-up; clothes and appearance are convincingly scruffy and unkempt; and the scenes at the Salvation Army in particular, with their harsh visual contrasts, their starkness and bleakness, are powerfully reminiscent of nineteenth-century photographs of doss-houses and slums with their destitute, despairing inhabitants.  Though it was the more obviously photogenic elements of superimposition and trick photography that aroused most widespread comment and admiration at the time, it may be those other aspects that prove most striking to an audience today.

Most commentators on Sjöström find his films between The Phantom Chariot and his departure for America in January of 1923 very disappointing and attribute this either to the belief that he was less at home with the work of Hjalmar Bergman, who wrote the scripts for most of them, than he was with themes and atmosphere of Lagerlöf, or to the deliberate policy of Svensk Filmindustri (which succeeded Svenska Bio in 1919) of capitalizing on the international success of Sjöström’s and Stiller’s work by making films with a presumed “international” appeal and so neglecting the specifically national characteristics that had brought Swedish film acclaim in the first place.

Hollywood Destinies: European Directors in America, 1922-1931 by Graham Petrie, 2002


Read more on Victor Sjöström and his films including The Phantom Carriage in Transition and Transformation: Victor Sjöström in Hollywood, 1923-1930 by Bo Florin (2013)

Blogs written by other classic film enthusiasts:
1001 Flicks by Francisco Santos Silva, June 2, 2006
popMatters by Marco Lanzagorta, June 10, 2008
Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear by Nathanael Hood, August 18, 2010
Silent Volume by Chris Edwards, July 18, 2011 (one of tonight’s guests)
Not Just Movies by Jake Cole, November 6, 2011
Film Comment: Because we all need to talk about movies by Andy Battaglia, May/June 2012
Film Freak Central by Bryant Frazer, June 18, 2012
TSorensen 1001 movie blog by TSorensen, July 1, 2012
Ferdy on Films by Roderick Heath, October 2012
Cinemaphile by David Keyes, July 29, 2013
Virtual Virago by Jennifer Garlen, September 10, 2013
Horrorpedia by Mondozilla, November 4, 2013
Drakenlordh by Drakenlordh, May 5, 2016
Swamp Flix by Brandon Ledet, May 19, 2016
Terrible Blog for Terrible People by Chris the Intern, November 2016
TCM Blog by David Sterritt

BURGLARS  (1930) or MURDER FOR SALE (1930)
Original Title:  EINBRECHER

Originally, I bought this film because I have known about Lilian Harvey since seeing her over 30 years ago in the 1933 film I Am Suzanne!, and only having seen her in a couple of films since, I wanted to see more of her.  When I first viewed this film several months ago, I watched it in two sittings.  The first part is an odd sort of musical with some dancing inserted into a story about a young, unsatisfied wife attempting to live out her romantic fantasies that have nothing to do with her much older toy-manufacturing husband.  Okay, I thought, a little bit of a slap-stick plot and some curves that include some villainesque characters.  But when I resumed watching part two, I was gleefully entertained to see that it had an impossible ending for pretty much any Hollywood film made, even during the pre-Code era, which is of course, the time period this film falls into.

Although it was a dangerous time politically in Germany, it was still before Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor which didn’t occur until January 1933.  There were a number of Jewish artists involved in the making of this film who either escaped to the States, such as composer Franz Waxman—who has one of his two ever screen roles in this film, as, if I have translated correctly, a black musician—or who died in the camps such as screenwriter Robert Liebmann.  Director Hanns Schwarz was able to escape after making a number of Ufa films including The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (1929) which starred Brigitte Helm and Francis Lederer.  I mention this because I was fortunate to see this film during one of Toronto Film Society’s festival weekends at the George Eastman House several years ago and have since picked up my own copy.

Willy Fritsch, who doesn’t show up until about a third or so into the film, was a big European star along with Lilian Harvey.  They were a considered a “dream couple” and starred in eleven films together, beginning in the silents.  Just like in Hollywood, the film magazines wrote about their off-screen romance, but it sounds as if this was just a fantasy concoction to satisfy their fans.  I also found Lilian Harvey had a somewhat modern, Carol Kane look to her in this film.

One of the more famous producers, Erich Pommer, who is accredited for 217 films including tonight’s, produced such well-known films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Hitchcock’s first film The Pleasure Garden [click to read my review and scroll down to November 3] (1925), Mauritz Stiller’s Hotel Imperial (1927), Lon Chaney’s Mockery (1927), many of Fritz Lang’s films including Metropolis (1927) and Spies (1928), Joe May’s impressive Asphalt (1929), Schwarz’s The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (mentioned above) and von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), continuing well into the talkie era.

There are also three titles for this film, the original Einbrecher, the English translation Burglars, and a title that, to me anyway, doesn’t really fit with the story of the film, Murder for Sale.  Try keeping it in mind while watching it tonight and see if it fits.

For people who watch Hollywood pre-Code, I think this film, which is considered a light German comedy, is worth viewing with an eye for comparison.  In the club scene near the end, there is a performance with a famous dancer of his time, Louis Douglas.  I’m not sure who the two women are and none of their names are listed in the credits.  In any event, I hope it’s something you will enjoy!  Caren

Production Company: Universum Film (UFA).  Directed by Hanns Schwarz.  Produced by Erich Pommer.  Based on the play Guignol le cambrioleur by Louis Verneuil, screenplay by Louis Verneuil and Robert Liebmann.  Cinematography by Konstantin Irmen-Tschet and Günther Rittau.  Music by Friedrich Hollaender and Franz Waxman.  Art Direction by Erich Kettelhut.  Film Editing by Willy Zeyn.  Costume Design by Ladislaw Czettel.  Released:  December 16, 1930.  102 minutes.

Eugene Dumontier………………………………………. Ralph Arthur Roberts
Reneé Dumontier…………………………………………………. Lilian Harvey
Jacques Durand……………………………………………………. Willy Fritsch
Victor Sérigny………………………………………………….. Heinz Rühmann
Mimi……………………………………………………….. Margarethe Koeppke
Jean Amadé – der Diener…………………………………………. Oskar Sima
Hortense…………………………………………………………… Gertrud Wolfe
Polizeikommisar #1…………………………………………………. Kurt Gerron
Polizeikommisar #2……………………………………………… Paul Henckels
Barmusiker……………………………………………………….. Sidney Bechet
Tänzerin………………………………………………………………. Greta Keller
Schwarzer Musiker……………………………………………… Franz Waxman
Louis Douglas………………………………………………… Night Club Dancer
Hilde Woerner
Heinz Lingen


…Iwan Goll’s critique can be considered escapist in that, like the European avant-garde at least since Gaugin, the non-Western world served as foil to industrialized Durope.  Primitivism was coveted as the antidote to the ills of European civilization.  Concomitant with this rejection of European modernism was a development which Peter Jelavich terms the “Americanization of popular entertainment in Berlin,” that is, a shift in popular music from the waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, folk songs, and marches that dominated German popular music before 1914 to the new forms emanating from America.

Jelavich equates the change in taste not only to the sudden popularity of American music after 1920 but especially to the appearance of black performers after 1924.  “Chocolate Kiddies and “La Revue Nègre” are singled out by him as the catalysts for the Americanization process.  Louis Douglas was clearly an integral part of that process and benefited from an important aspect of black performance in Europe.  Cast members of the various troupes changed periodically.  After Josephine Baker left “La Revue Nègre” the show continued with a new cast member….

With the celebrity Douglas had gained performing with some of the leading African American and German entertains of the day, it is not surprising that he should find his way to the film.  In Weimar Germany film and radio enjoyed enormous popularity and afforded entertainers access to mass audiences.  In just twelve months Douglas appeared in three feature films.  His first film Einbrecher was a German-French project produced by Ufa, Germany’s preeminent film studio and the source of a large number of German popular films in the 1920s and especially in Nazi Germany.  A German version of the film premiered on December 16, 1930, in Berlin’s Gloria Palast.

One of Germany’s earliest speaking films, Einbrecher had a cast that included some of Weimar’s most luminous stars: Lilian Harvey, Willy Fritsch, Heinz Rühmann, and Kurt Gerron.  The already famous Friedrich Holländer, who had earlier that year composed the immortal song “Ich bin vom Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt” for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, had composed the film music and Sidney Bechet with his band performed in a scene located in a Parisian bar with a dance number by Douglas and two women.


(WARNING: This paragraph gives away the whole story)

This scene was the extent of Douglas’s participation in the film.  Neither he nor Bechet appear in the film credits.  The plot line is predictable.  A doll manufacturer (Ralph Arthur Roberts) neglects his young wife (Lilian Harvey) who begins to consider the advances of a lightweight lothario played by Heinz Rühmann.  Their illicit rendezvous is, however, interrupted by a charming burglar (Willy Fritsch) who casts a spell on the frustrated wife.  The alleged burglar then appears at the manufacturer’s home and with the help of his accomplice, the butler, sends everyone away so he can arrange a late-night rendezvous with the wife at a black nightclub in Paris (Rue du Blonde 11).  The wife arrives and she and her “burglar” are surprised by the husband.  Instead of a burglar, the charming stranger turns out to be a dramatist looking for material who has been shadowing the wife for several months.  Recognizing the bond between his wife and the dramatist, the husband leaves her to her newfound happiness.

Most interesting in this otherwise routine film is the cabaret scene.  The dancers and lookers-on in the cabaret are mixed: interracial couples as well as same-race couples are found throughout the small room.  A hint of primitivism is conveyed by two mechanical monkeys on poles that twirl as the small orchestra plays.  Louis Douglas and two apparently African American women perform two dance numbers and at the end of the film when the lovers sing a final duet they are accompanied by the all-black jazz band.  The film’s subtitle is repeated in the last dialogue of the film when the false butler who is also a dramatist gets his notebook back.  He had been spying on the members of the manufacturer’s household to also find material for a drama.  After retrieving the notebook he announces his intention to create “eine musikalische Ehekomödie.”  The real purpose of the film is to present a somewhat humorous plot supported by music.

A French version of the film entitled Flagrant Dèlit premiered in March 1931.  The cast was obviously changed to adapt to French tastes.  Blanche Montel replaced Lilian Harvey; Ralph Arthur Roberts returned as the inattentive doll manufacturer, but his two rivals for his wife’s affection were played by Charles Dechamp and Henri Garat.  Music was gain provided by Friedrich Holländer but French lyrics were written by Jean Boyer.  Sidney Bechet and Louis Douglas also reappear in the French version along with Franz Wachsmann, who for both versions is listed as a “schwarzer Musiker,” an interesting designation for a native of Upper Silesia who became famous because of his work on The Blue Angel and then in America composed music for classic films such as The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, and Rear Window under the name of Franz Waxmann.  Einbrecher is typical of the light-hearted comedies so popular during the 1930s.

Germans and African Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange, edited by Larry A. Greene and Anke Ortlepp (2011)


Einbrecher (Burglars, 1930) (Murder for Sale, Hanns Schwarz, 1930) takes us behind the scenes and offers a hands-on view of a technology that creates artificial worlds.  The first shot provides a close-up of a singing torero, an animated figure redolentof a tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and opens up to a gathering of costumed cyborgs, stand-ins for the make-believe beings who inhabit the film we are about to see.  A Walt Disneyesque metteur en scène directes the proceedings in a laboratory for mechanical puppets.  Later in the film a song reiterates the imaginary trappings of the world before us:

The dog looks alive,
The child speaks,
A world of simulations.
Everything moves in turns.
Inside her is only clockwork,
Not a heart.

Generic Histories of German Cinema: Genre and Its Deviations, edited by Jaimey Fisher (2013) and
The Use and Abuse of Cinema: German Legacies from the Weimar Era to the Present by Eric Rentschler (2015)


Heinz Rühmann, Albers’s unequal partner in Monte Carlo Madness and The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes, attained the status of “state actor” in 1940 by a different route (than Hans Albers).  Rühmann began his film career playing the role of an aggressive draft resister (Das deutsche Mutterherz [The German Maternal Heart], directed by Geza von Bolvary for Ewe-Film, 1926).  By 1939 he had become supportive of the regime and on orders from on high been classified as unavailable for military service.  However, in 1941 he volunteered at the Rechlin Air Station for pilot training and then appeared in German newsreels as a prize example of a patriotic courier pilot, a role that (like his friendship wit the air ace Ernst Udet) increased his favor with the regime, as did his successes in the Terra films Quax der Bruchplot (Quax Makes a Crash Landing, directed by Kurt Hoffmann, 1941) and Quax in Fahrt (Quax Under Way, directed by Helmut Weiss, 1943-44).

Not until he began working with Ufa did Rühmann find vehicles suitable to the development of his “blond gentleness of nature”—underlaid by a certain combative balkiness and suppressed rebelliousness—films lie The Three from the Filling Station, Schwarz’s “musical comedy of marriage” Burglars, and Kurt Gerron’s comedies of the crisis years, Meine Frau, die Hochstaplerin (My Wife the Confidence Woman, 1931) and There’ll Be a Turn for the Better (1931-32).  In 1931 he said, “The task of film as I see it is to cheer up our contemporaries, who are burdened with heavy cares, and to liberate them from an atmosphere of pessimism and discouragement by giving them fresh hope and new energy—those important weapons one needs to emerge victorious in the struggle for existence.”  It is easy to see between the lines of this credo the opportunism that made his humor a standard ingredient in the affirmative entertainment of the “Strength through Joy” state.

The Ufa directors under whom Rühmann had begun as an edifying jokester and “predecessor of the Nazi fellow traveler,” as the film historian Ulrich Kurowski dubbed him, had all emigrated long since or were locked out of the profession when their hero celebrated his triumphs in the late 1930s in Terra’s Heinrich Spoerl films and, in 1940, contributed his song “Das kann doch einen Seemann nicht erschüttern” (“That Can’t Bother a Sailor Any”) to Eduard von Borsody’s fight-to-the-last-man Wish Concert (Cine-Allianz/Ufa).  Rühmann’s vacillation between cringing timidity and rebellion did not contain those subversive qualities Goebbels thought he detected when he classified Die Feuerzangenbowle (The Mulled Punch, directed by Helmut Weiss, Terra, 1943) as hostile to authority and refused to approve it.  Rühmann contacted Hitler personally and managed to have the film released.

In German films of the 1930s, Rühmann and Willy Fritsch, Gustav Fröhlich and Hans Brausewetter saw the star reduced to being the common man that urban anonymity and late Weimar “objectivity” had formed.  In the roles they played, the “man in the street” became the hero of grotesquely complex plots and sentimental dramas in which the emotions were no more than quotations—reflections from a now defunct culture with richer, deeper feelings than this one.  Most of the plots revolved around money and love, and in most cases money—or the social order regulated by financial arrangements—prevailed.

The Ufa Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945, by Klaus Kreimeie, (1996)


Schwarz’s Einbrecher (Burglar[s]) of 1930 and his directorial debut Ich und die Kaiserin (I and the Empress) of 1932-33.  These works, and the rest of the Pommer musicals, appeared in the last phase of the Weimar Republic, which had inauspiciously begun with the hunger, deprivation and street-fighting that followed the First World War and the Versailles Treaty; had then passed through the hell of monetary inflation in the early 1920s; had rallied after the stabilisation of the coinage and the influx of foreign loans between 1925 and 1929, only to have more than its share of world-wide misery, financial ruin and unemployment which followed the New York Stock Exchange crises of Octoer and November 1929.  The soil was fertile for what R. Bruce Lockhart described as Hitlerite ‘exploitation of hatreds and resentments, nationalist propaganda, racism, flag-waving, and the desire to enforce conformity in the quest for power’ (TLS, 15 August 2003).  It was also well prepared, however, for the kind of holiday from everyday worries offered by film theatres increasingly called ‘palaces’ (Ufa-Palast, Gloria-Palast, etc.) when they showed films in which attractive men and women sang and danced their way into luxury or simple comforts, and marriages that promised lasting happiness.  The most popular example of that kind of musical (there were, as I shall show, other kinds) was Three Men from the Filling Station, significantly known in its French version as Le chemin du paradis—the Paradise Way….

…After his success with The Blue Angel, a film to which I shall return along with The Congress Dances in the next section, Fredrich Hollaender was given the chance to put his ideas on music in sound films into practice once again in Einbrecher (a title which can be read as Burlars, in which case it refers to the character played by Fritsch, or Burglars which takes in Fritsch’s accomplice, played by Oskar Sima).  It was directed by Hanns Schwarz, and first see in 1930.  Throughout this work Hollaender plays instrumental and vocal variations on an opening song: ‘Lass mich einmal Deine Carmen sein’ (‘Let me be your Carmen for once’).  Despiteits dissemination on gramophone records and through the radio, this song never achieved anything like the popularity of other Hollaender Schlager; in Burglar[s] it is outshone by a nonsense song performed by Fritsch at the piano, accompanying a dance by Harvey.  Here the singer proposes to have his body painted black and go live a simpler life on the Fiji Islands: ‘Ich lass mir meinen Körper schwarz bepinseln…’

The film’s plot has Harvey’s character married to an elderly puppet manufacturer, played by Ralph Arthur Roberts, and yearning for greater sexual and emotional satisfaction than her husband is able or willing to offer.  Her yearning is answered when she falls for an apparent burglar, played, of course, by Willy Fritsch, who is in reality a writer in search of inspiration for a piece featuring burglary which he is composing.  He is aided and abetted by another such writer, played by Oskar Sima, who takes a job as the puppet-maker’s servant for similar purposes.  The plot, based on a play by Louis Verneuil adapted by Robert Liebmann, calls for a directorial lightness of touch such as Lubitsch possessed and Hanns Schwarz did not.  Neither the film, in which Kurt Gerron appears briefly as a police inspector anxious to ingratitate himself with his superiors, nor the songs featured within it, had anything like the success of Three Men from the Filling Station and The Congres Dances—to say nothing of the international fame of The Blue Angel.

Between Two Worlds: The Jewish Presence in German and Austrian Film, 1910-1933 by S.S. Prawer, (2005)


“Look here, there is our little dancing flea!” – Minister President Hermann Göring, receiving Lilian Harvey upon her return to Germany in 1935

The press is asked not to take notice of actress Lilian Harvey’s expatriation. – National Socialist press orders, October 9, 1942

Lilian Harvey always appeared as a sprite, a dancing figurine in a glass menagerie, a fairy ballerina engulfed in a tulle and taffeta, a pixie as cute as a button, wo between the years of 1924 and 1940 performed her idiosyncratic mix of romantic heroine and tomboyish comedienne in fifty-five romantic dramas, musicals, and comedies.  In the 1930s Lilian Harvey was in fact the most popular star of German musical comedy and, while melodrama was the dominant women’s genre of the 1930s and 1940s, both in the Third Reich and in the United States, among the whole of the feature films produced under Hitler, comedies led.

Indeed, an overwhelming 48 percent of all movies available for German audiences between the years of 1933 and 1945 were Lustspiele, plays of a humorous nature.  Most of them were German -produced, but among the most successful were also a significant number that wore the label “made in Hollywood,” an occurrence that seems less surprising when we consider that American films remained in distribution in Germany until 1939 and in certain places even until 1941.  Karsten Witte has pointed out that following the Naxi takeover in 1933, rther than going through a short episode of radical transformation, the German film industry experienced a long period of transition.  Moreover, what was initially envisioned as Ufa’s transitional phase by Promi in many ways became the normal film practice.  Nazi cinema, especially the films made in the years immediately succeeding the Nazis’ seizure of power, often showed more affinities with Hollywood and Weimar traditions than they did to the “new way of thinking,” the National Socialist neue Geist.  This was especially apparent in Ufa’s construction of new screen idols, and in particular Marlene Dietrich’s “replacement” Zarah Leander, as well as in its treatment of already established stars such as Lilian Harvey.  Unlike the “innocent” Söderbaum or the “instant-diva” Leander, Harvey was not an ingénue, but a seasoned star figure deeply rooted in Weimar and Hollywood.  With respect to national Socialism and its conception of “new womanhood” Harvey’s general association with extrafascist prototypes created a number of complications.

To make matters worse, on January 30, 1933—the day Hitler came to power—Lilian Harvey was already on her way to America, a fact that would later result in her being accused of “escaping the Reich” (Reichsflucht).  She was soon followed by screenwriters Walter Reisch and Robert Liebmann, composer Franz Wachsmann, director Friedrich Hollaender, producer Erich Pommer, and actors Mady Christians, Conrad Veidt, and Heinrich Gretler.  All of them had worked on Harvey’s latest picture Ich und die Kaiserin (The Empress and I, Ufa, 1933), which finished shooting in January 1933.  Lilian Harvey had decided to leave long before the political upheaval that motivated many of her colleagues and especially the Jewish ones to emigrate. Like other European superstars of the time, she had been wooed and won by a seductive offer f rom Fox, which was eager to appropriate overseas talent, hoping to thereby gain Europe’s most charismatic actors for their own productions and simultaneously destroy their foreign competitors by luring away their biggest stars.


As one of the most popular female actresses of the Weimar period at the height of her Ufa career, Harvey had every reason to assume she would be successful in the United States.  In 1933 a reader poll conducted by the journal Licht-Bild-Bühne confirmed Harvey as Germany’s number one female star, ahead of both Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.  In fact, Harvey—who was born to a British mother and German father but largely raised in Germany—was already an international star.  She had performed in several successful multiple-language versions of her Ufa musicals (French, British, and German versions that, aside from Harvey, co-starred different national actors) that had made her popular not only in Germany, but also in England and France.  Readers of the French magazine Pour Vous, for instance, voted her the most popular non-French actress in 1932.  In addition, 52 percent of all foreign film imports o the American market came from Germany, among them, of course, Ufa’s most popular films starring Lilian Harvey.

Once in Hollywood, however, Harvey encountered fierce competition and only moderate success.  Dissatisfied with her status as a small fish in a very large pond, and because of a personal romance with her protégé, director Paul Martin, Harvey returned to Berlin only two years later, having made only a few unremarkable films in Hollywood.  Hollywood’s other big German hire, Marlene Dietrich—an actress who had been less firmly established as a long-term German star when she first came to the United States, but was already very successful in Hollywood by the time Harvey arrived—would later be canonized as the quintessential female star émigré.  Conversely Lilian Harvey, in lieu of Hollywood fame, almost instantly resumed her big screen success in Germany when she returned in 1935, starring in some of National Socialist cinema’s most successful and, many critics agree, most interesting comedies.  However, despite her desperate attempts to find film work in France, Hollywood, and postwar Germany, Harvey’s film career ended abruptly on a few years later with a second emigration in 1939.

…Although Harvey’s early roles showed her as a generic girlish flapper, her appearances in the late 1920s paired her with silent-screen heartthrob Willy Fritsch and quickly constructed Harvey into the female half of Ufa’s number one, and arguably only, “dream couple”.  Harvey’s success as Fritsch’s perpetual love interest in a number of romantic comedies, and the enormous fascination the press and public developed in their private relationship, subsequently locked both actors into a partnership that dominated the rest of their careers.  By 1933, the Harvey-Fritsch pair was an established fixture in the Ufa firmament, and the officials of the Ministry of Propaganda quickly declared its reconstruction upon Harvey’s return in 1935 as a cultural triumph, rather than an unfortunate atavism. …


…In America, Harvey’s depiction as a creature of luxury introduced the star in a similar vein.  The Mercedes that Harvey had purchased after signing a contract with Fox accompanied Harvey to Hollywood in 1933.  It was a unique luxury car rivaled only by Gary cooper’s Duesenberg.  The publication Screen Play described Harvey’s Hollywood arrival as follows:

Lilian Harvey, the prize package of Europe, arrived neatly wrapped in cellophane, and stamped with the official seal of Hollywood.  A stranger in a strange land, Miss Harvey was more like Hollywood than any of the natives!…It seems as if Lilian Harvey, the most famous screen star in all Europe, really belonged in Hollywood.  Everything about her was typical of Hollywood.  Not only that, she went the local stars one better on every point of glamour.  A twenty-five-carat diamond ring weighed down her engagement finger.  Diamond bracelets encrusted her arms.  Her bare toes, peeking through sandals, revealed manicured toenails lacquered blood red.  Her car, a glittering snow-white Mercedes coupe, was longer and more spectacular than any other motor seen in Hollywood!  Her gowns were more exotic and extreme than anything worn by native star….All the other foreign stars who have been brought here have been a far cry from the types glorified in pictures.  Often they have been frumpish in their clothes, shy or quaint in their manner, bewildered or awed by the sights Hollywood had to offer….The other foreign stars “went Hollywood” after they got here.  She was Hollywood when she arrived.

Almost daily updates followed in the press.  Fashion spreads and star photographs were published in abundance.  Harvey’s friendship with Gary Cooper led the gossip columnists to romance speculations.  Hollywood’s star-making efforts worked to perfection.  “here’s a new star who’s a real star,” announced a Fox publicity ad, “she fascinates…she devastates…exhilarates…sings, dances and entrances.  It will be love at first sight when your audience sees this diminutive darling in My Weakness …another FOX hit.”  The American press and audiences liked Harvey, even though her films flopped or were even held back from release.

Back in Germany, however, the tepid reception of Harvey’s Hollywood films inspired gloating comments in the Nazi press, which treated the absentee Ufa star with reservations.  My Weakness was banned by the National Socialist censors, and My Lips Betray inspired the journal Filmwoche to taunt, “didn’t they say that America could offer her better opportunities than Germany; didn’t they say she was overly typecast in Berlin—and that she needed America to achieve new accomplishments, encounter more liberal themes and greater challenges?…It seems that we’ll have to wait.”  In fact, Ufa’s perception of Harvey’s continuing popularity was so unstable that on learning of Harvey’s plans to return to Germany in 1934, Ufa sent a memo to all its theaters requesting feedback as to “whether we should take her under contract again,” and if so, “what film partners should she be paired with.”


When she finally did arrive, however, she was publicly received with open arms.  Her “homecoming” was portrayed as the return of a remorseful daughter, who had learned “[t]hat Hollywood wasn’t the perfect film paradise.  It had as many disappointments in store for her as it had for all the others who had arrived from Europe with the highest hopes. But then she hadn’t gone over to stay forever, but to see new things, to gain experience and learn….the artistic results of her two years in Hollywood were not productive, but on a human and intellectual level they were important.”…

…one of the central elements of Harvey’s star persona, the one that allowed Harvey to be read as sexually conservative, yet reassuringly heterosexual—a set of signifiers that affirm the patriarchal elements in Nazi culture—collapsed in 1937 when Willy Fritsch married the revue star Dinah Grace. Harvey’s imaginary real-life relationship with her costar, her involvement in the fantasy of the “dream-couple” was thus dismantled by actual events.  “What should one say about confusion of meaning in the audience, who want to project everything that happens in the unreality of the screen into reality, where it absolutely will not happen?” wondered a National Socialist critic, who continued: “Even as we try to clear out the attic of the German film industry (which includes the German audience), and begin to sweep out the tender cobwebs of false meanings,…we have to stop and smile at such sweet manifestations of film insanity.”  Once again National Socialist criticism pointed to the Nazis’ supposed reformation of film function, its systematic housecleaning targeting both the notion of stardom and film spectatorship.  Yet in this case, what needed “sweeping out” was foundational to the illusionism that underlay Harvey’s stardom.

One can easily argue that Harvey’s image after the Fritschian nuptials shifted in a direction that was quite the opposite of the National Socialist ideal of either womanhood or stardom….


…In 1928, Harvey left the Eichberg-Film-G.m.b.H., which had produced her first films, after a legal battle and signed a contract with Ufa guaranteeing her generous compensation and the right to influence the selection of screenplays in which she would star. This union resulted in a solidified paradigmatic story concept for Ufa’s use of Harvey to which both parties would stick from then on.  To describe her part in Die Drei von der Tankstelle (The Trio from the Gas Station, 1930), one of the most successful Harvey-Fritsch’s musical comedies, for instance, Harvey outlined her typical role: “It [The Trio from the Gas Station] points to the rebirth of romantic films and of the carefree, joyful, young heroine.  I love such roles.  No matter in what time period the story is set, how tight my corset is laced or in what kind of impressive hair-do I appear, I am always the same girl, who iskeen to play a prank, cheerful and unencumbered.  I have always played such heroines, starring with Willy Fritsch, Harry Liedtke and Henri Garat.  In Germany, Willy Fritsch has always been my main partner.”  Indeed, Harvey’s partnership with Fritsch began as early as 1926 with Die keusche Susanne (Chaste Susanne), which paired Harvey as the morally righteous Susanne with Fritsch as a charming good-for-nothing.  While Chaste Susanne ended with Susanne’s return to her proper fiancé, Ihr dunkler Punkt (Her Dark Secrete, 1929) three years later joined the couple in the end, setting a precendent for the majorit of the two performers’ future productions.

The couple’s success can be seen to derive from both the contrast and the similarity between them.  On the one hand, the physically overpowering Fritsch emphasized Harvey’s girlish frailty, while simultaneously giving her self-assured resistance a comical edge.  In Ursula Vossen’s words, “Frtisch’s vital, youthful masculinity that carried paternalistic undertones was n=most successful next to doll-like Harvey, whose coquettish girlishness in turn needed the massive Fritsch.”  On the other hand, both players seemed compatible insofar as they suggested a fundamental immaturity; neither fully functioned as a “grown-up” in their joint films, where they shared a tirelessly jolly optimism and—in keeping with the comedy genre—a playful attitude to life that elided a problematized conception of human difficulties….

…The lack of sexual chemistry between Harvey and Fritsch was prominent in most of their films.  It often serves as a point of entry for critics seeking to discuss the couple in terms of the Nazis’ attempt to de-eroticize the German cultural sphere—replacing erotic allure, perceived as dangerous and degenerate, with a supposedly healthy and responsible attitude toward reproduction and comradeship in marriage.  However, the state of parity and playful companionship that frequently existed between the two is often ignored.  While Harvey’s infantilizing pouts set her apart from many of the wise-cracking stars who followed—ranging from Mae West to Rosalind Russell, or even Grete Weiser’s Berliner Schnauze (Berline loudmouth)—Harvey’s simultaneous projection of stubborn self-assurance (female emancipation) and immature emotionalism (traditional femininity) spoke to the conflicting ideals of womanhood that had been in circulation since the suffrage movement and the subsequent conceptualization of the “new woman.”  The notion that a more (rather than fully) equal partnership was desirable, which had been suggested in the much-discussed 1928 nonfiction book Die Kameradschaftsehe (Marriage as Friendship and Companionship) and was taken up by Harvey-Fritsch as bantering film couple, also related to a shift in power relations between the sexes….

Hitler’s Heroines: Stardom and Womanhood in Nazi Cinema by Antje Ascheid (2003)


Hanns Schwarz was an Austrian film director. He was born in Vienna in 1888. He directed twenty-four films between 1924 and 1937 in both English and German. During the late silent and early sound eras he was a leading director at the German giant studio UFA. In the early 1930s he worked on several Multi Language Version films for UFA, producing the same film in distinct German and foreign-language versions. Schwarz was Jewish and was therefore forced to leave Germany in 1933 when the Nazis took over, going into exile in Britain. His last film was the 1937 British thriller Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He died in California in 1945.



Read about film producer Erich Pommer’s life in From Caligari to California: Erich Pommer’s Life in the International Film Wars by Ursula Hardt (1996)

If you understand German, you can watch the film here.

Joining me tonight were Andrea, Angela, Arny, Charles, Chris, David, Hanna, Lee, Rolf and Ronda.


1 thought on “The Phantom Chariot (1921) and Burglars (1930)

  1. Pingback: A Woman’s Face | CarensClassicCinema

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