Directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, this 1921 movie is based on the 1912 novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf. It’s considered one of the first horror films ever made due to its atmosphere and it features both groundbreaking special effects and narrative innovations such as flashbacks within flashbacks.
Lagerlöf and A-B Svenska Biografteatern had a contract to adapt at least one Lagerlöf novel every year. Sjöström had made three of these adaptions, which had been well-received by audiences, critics and most importantly, the author. Lagerlöf was initially skeptical about how film could capture the book’s occultism and mysticism. The filmmaker went to her home and acted out the movie all by himself. Lagerlöf responded by offering him dinner.
This movie has the alternate title The Stroke of Midnight in the U.S., as how do you sell it? Is it horror? A fable? A drama?
The film takes place on New Year’s Eve, a time when a dying Salvation Army sister named Edit wishes for the chance to speak with David Holm. He’s currently drunk in a graveyard, telling the story about how the last person to die each year must drive Death’s carriage and collect the souls of the next year’s dead. And the person who told him? They were the last person to die last year. A fight breaks out not long after, with David hit in the head and him being picked up by his friend, driving the carriage of Death.
What follows is the bleak story of a man whose addictions have caused him to destroy his family and even doom the one woman who tried to save him, Enid, with consumption. His disease nearly killed his family as well, as his wife Anna locked them in a room and David broke in with an axe to attempt to see them.
If that sounds like The Shining, it is. Kubrick isn’t the only director inspired by this movie. Ingmar Bergman obsessed over the film — watching it once a year and calling it the “film of films” — and even refers to Death in The Seventh Seal as a strict master, the same words used in this movie. He also made The Image Makers, which is about the making of this movie. Charlie Chaplin also said it was the best movie ever made.