PHANTOM (F.W. Murnau, 1922, Germany, 125m, BW)
Cast: Anton Edthofer, Olga Engl, Karl Etlinger, Ilka Grüning, Adolf Klein, Frida Richard, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Heinrich Witte, Lil Dagover, Aud Egede Nissen, Grete Berger, Lya de Putti, Alfred Abel
Director: F.W. Murnau
Writer: Thea Von Harbou, Hans Heinrich Von Twardowski
Running Time: 125 min.
Lorenz (Alfred Abel), an office worker of meager means, lives in a tiny apartment with his mother and two siblings and harbors artistic aspirations. But when Lorenz spies the mysteriously alluring Veronika (Lya De Putti) riding in a carriage, he begins neglecting all his responsibilities in his relentless pursuit of the unattainable beauty. He later meets Mellitta (also De Putti), a conniving woman who resembles Veronika, and she dupes him into doing her bidding, with devastating results.
F.W. Murnau's ("Nosferatu"/The Last Laugh"/"Sunrise"/"Faust") long lost silent melodrama (restored in Berlin in 2003) is about a small town city clerk Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel), who is duped into thinking he can find happiness and riches as a poet. The phantom is not a supernatural being but an unattainable object of desire that ultimately drives the pursuer daffy. It's basically a morality play about how money corrupts, but also has our hapless hero obsessed with the beautiful rich blonde Fraulein Veronika Harlan (Lya De Putti) whose horse-driven carriage struck him in the street.
It's based on the popular novel by Gerhart Hauptmann and scripted by Thea von Harbou (wife of Fritz Lang, who scripted many of his silent classics but later deserted him for the Nazi cause) and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski. It's dreadfully slow-paced, overwrought and dated. Though it's a fine technical achievement for its time, offering some dazzling imagery for its picturesque provincial town, great expressionistic sets, tinted coloring, and a psychologically inspired outside scene where the buildings seem to be toppling down on our fallen hero. The film is told in flashback.
Maybe the manuscript will inadvertently result in the literary acceptance that has so far eluded him? There is no phantom, he's only "chasing after a shadow." This film is more psychological than it is supernatural, a 'crime and punishment' variant. Strangeness is kept to the minimum, seen as aspects of Lorenz's distorted perception, as he's pursued by shadows through streets where the buildings lean in to crush him, or he's chasing the ghost-carriage through the empty streets, and later there's a crooked Nosferatu-shadow on the wall behind him. It's all leisurely-paced, starkly and sparsely shot, and over-theatrically acted out in the manner of the time. The colourising is unobtrusive, adding green or blue filters to differentiate whole scenes.
Some time later Murnau migrated to Hollywood, just as sound was convulsing Tinseltown. He preferred to work with silents. Also available today is an enhanced edition of his innovative and 1927's well-received Sunrise, but within years of its success he was killed in an auto-wreck in March 1931, aged just 42. Greta Garbo - another European exile, was said to have kept his death-mask on her desk during her movie years. One might call "Phantom" a precursor to "The Blue Angel" and "Lolita", but I wouldn't call that totally accurate. The latter two are more straightforward about their subject matter, while this one is deliberately surreal and dreamlike. But no matter how you interpret "Phantom", you can't deny that it is a very good representation of inter-war German cinema. The movie is a little slow at times, but definitely worth seeing. The likes of Orson Welles noted, and learned from Murnau's fluid use of camerawork and extended dolly-shots.
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