One cool thing about silent cinema is it doesn't matter what country it is from, so long as the dialog cards are translated. Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness also known as The Phantom Chariot, The Phantom Carriage, or Stroke of Midnight (Korkarlin, 1921) is a Swedish film based on a ghost story by Nobel Prize author Selma Lagerlof.
David (played by the director Victor Sjostrom) is beaten to death immediately before the stroke of midnight on Saint Sylvester's Night (New Years), in a graveyard. By right of the time & place, his spirit is expected to take the reins of the Death Coach which comes for the dead.
As the Phantom Chariot appears in the distance, David's ghost, lamenting his cruelty to his wife, begins a prayer for his own redemption, & for a chance to do right by his despairing wife (Hilda Borgstrom) & children.
Flashbacks within flashbacks unveil the appalling life of David Holms as a wife-abusing drunkard of the slums. We see numerous opportunities held out to him for salvation, but something bitterly dark inside him preserves his doomful path.
The acting is surprisingly naturalistic, not the usual over-acting of so many silent films, & David may well be one of the most complex realistic villain protagonists of cinema.
The term "masterpiece" is so often tossed about for any film that is pretty darned good that when something that rises above the best of the best is encountered, one feels at a loss for words. Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness was a primary influence on the gothicisms of Ingmar Bergman. Sjostrom's eerie film has gorgeous, moody sets & groundbreaking cinematography. The scenes of the phantom carriage are genuinely spooky. And the story that unfolds of one man's tragic, stupid life, & the repercussions of his sorry choices, is deeply moving. This is in the top ten for silent cinema.
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