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It's New Year's Eve. Three drunkards evoke a legend. The legend tells that the last person to die in a year, if he is a great sinner, will have to drive during the whole year the Phantom Chariot, the one that picks up the souls of the dead... David Holm, one of the three drunkards, dies at the last stroke of midnight... Written by
The film should have been heavily censored due to its supernatural content in accordance with the censorship guidelines at the time, but the board of censors decided to leave the film intact rather than risk a dispute with Selma Lagerlöf. See more »
The soul's long, hard journey into night (and the mechanisms that produce god)
Had I known this was going to turn out as deeply awesome as it did, I would have perhaps saved it for a time of need. I'm always looking for spiritual visions that permit a journey inwards, but they are so few in the grand scheme that I'm grateful for each and every one. I try to cherish them because they let me watch from the heart. It's why I keep myself from finishing off the rest of Tarkovsky's films - I want to know that there's always a drink of fresh water at hand when I'm parching.
I came to this, like most people I presume, for its reputation as a horror film where the reaper gets out to harvest souls. I collect these as well but for different reasons, and was expecting here something more or less expressionist. As with most silents however, it's not really horror by our contemporary sense; horror in these films comes from more directly abstract notions, guilt, humiliation, spiritual damnation, and it's usually with the intent to distill a life lesson. They may seem outdated now but only because we presume to know these things and so reckon that no further guidance is necessary - while we, self-sufficient modern humans in perfect control of our destinies, continue to live our lives in random iterations.
Here death itself. The journey of the soul in the world inside the soul. Like earlier texts of this journey, Dante's Inferno or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is advisable, imperative even, that we read beyond the feverish vision of the beyond. That we read between the collective dream the author has dreamed up as meant to await us and contemplate on why we dreamed in the first place.
The man who dies last on New Year's Eve - at the cusp of new life, and so at the start of a new cosmic round - becomes Death's driver for the coming year, this is the premise. He ferries the vehicle - and us as passengers - where the journey inwards or across can begin. Our man contemplates the chain of events that brought him lying dead before the carriage of death.
The opening chapters in the Book of the Dead that propel the process of rebirth, and which pertain very much here, are thus named: "The chapter of making Osiris S. possess a memory in the Underworld" and next "the chapter of giving Osiris S. a heart in the Underworld".
The man remembers, he had a perfectly good life and family but blew it up like so many we know of. He goes into prison and comes out reborn again with realization of what his deeds brought him. But he has to start again, like every new life he has to build his again from nothing. Instead he drags himself through this next life in a limbo of guilt and seething hatred. It is this unswathing of the spirit across different worlds that matters, and the dissolution in each one granting passage in the next. How strong karmas resonate from one existence to the other, powering the cart. Death's driver is granting the visions after all.
There is a woman in all of this, a nurse for the Salvation Army. From her end, she is looking to hear from god. We see from both ends, her trying to save who she considers a mandate from god and on the other side the man who is wrestling personal demons. If god doesn't speak through him, then he never spoke at all. In a beautiful scene, she spends the night mending his torn soul; when he wakes up, furious at the kindness, he tears it up again for spite.
More great cinema about the karmas metaphysically weaving together the participants: having failed to mend him, the woman literally contracts his illness. And when the man violently attacks with an axe a locked door, his wife on the other side falls to die.
The man finally wakes up from death though, having prayed and thus lay himself prostrate before a higher force. This is likely a part that modern viewers will find hard to swallow. But this is the thing; it is not literal death in these texts, never was. The underworld the soul must travel through to be reborn on the other side is always inside, why it's so often called a 'descent', and so the power to make a full transit by learning again life-value through the different levels always rests with the soul. What the man learns at the moment of prayer is the humility that shatters ego. Of course he is forgiven. One of the final chapters in that ancient Egyptian text reads: "chapter of causing a man to come back upon his house on earth". Notice that the dead man is no longer symbolically referred (and so protected) by the name of the god Osiris, having passed the horrible tribulations, now the deity is embodied inside.
So god does speak after all through this man, but it speaks to her who was looking to apprehend him and so, no doubt, will hear his voice in the miracle. From our perspective seeing deeper into these lives, our perspective itself dislocated from bodies and wandering with the spirits, we know there was no god: the miraculous transformation on the visible level was only the last step in a painful, arduous process of healing the heart. It's a powerful notion, worth two or three Seals (Bergman).
So it's really only us who can mend ourselves. It's a lesson, make no mistake, but a lesson worth keeping. Simply said, it sounds trite - most anything does if the words are not right. The man was told after all, no doubt he understood in some capacity, but it meant nothing. Which is why it's important to journey from the heart.
Something to meditate upon.
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