Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
We're told that when Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was offered an exclusive contract with Erich Pommer in 1921, he had to get a 'prior commitment' for Prana-film out of the way first -- a little film called Nosferatu. Murnau then made this lengthy story of romantic obsession with some of Germany's best talent. Based on a just-released novel by the prestigious Gerhart Hauptman (who appears in an opening prologue), Phantom is the strange tale of a foolhardy innocent embroiled in crime and passion. Although only in his third year as a director, Murnau exerts tight control over every image, contributing several famous sequences to the honor roll of German Silent Expressionism.
Once in tatters and thought to be lost, Phantom has been recovered and restored through the work of a consortium of European archives and museums. This edition was produced by Turner Classic Movies.
Humble city clerk Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel) is absent-minded and often late to work. His tired old mother (Frida Richard) is concerned that Lorenz' inattention and his sister Melanie (Aud Egede Nissen)'s nighttime philandering are causing the family to fall apart. Lorenz also doesn't appreciate that the beautiful Marie next door (Lil Dagover) is quietly in love with him; her father Starke the bookbinder (Karl Etlinger) likes Lorenz's poetry and says he will try to get it published. Already late for work, Lorenz is struck down by a fancy coach driven by Veronica Harlan (Lya De Putti), and becomes enchanted by her face. Hopelessly in love, he follows Veronika home and is expelled by the coachman at her grand house. Lorenz goes to his Aunt Schwabe (Grete Berger), a cynical pawnbroker who thinks her nephew is the only honorable man in the city. Not realizing that Lorenz's literary future is little more than a pipe dream, Schwabe insists on buying him a suit to fit his new status as a man of letters. Unfortunately, confidence man Wigottschinski (Anton Edthofer) sees Lorenz as a way to the pawnbroker's fortune. With Veronika Harlan engaged to marry another man, Lorenz is so addled that he helps Wigottschinski fleece Aunt Schwabe, and then recklessly spends the money on a gold digger who looks just like Veronika, Mellitta (also Lya De Putti). Even worse, Wigottschinski seduces Melanie, and Lorenz's mother is on her deathbed, with only her other son Hugo (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) at her side. Good Marie steps in to help as well, while Lorenz spirals into worse crimes when Aunt Schwabe intends to turn him over to the police.
Phantom's complicated tale of naïve ambition plunges an essentially good man into total chaos, a theme that connects with the American noir style twenty years later. The same feeling of doomed entrapment adds a Germanic flavor to Edgar Ulmer's highly stylized Detour but also lends a dimension of expressionist fate to otherwise undistinguished thrillers, such as the low-budget Quicksand starring Mickey Rooney.
Murnau's film is a highly commercial attraction, and offers plenty of bait for the German audience of 1922, including three noted actresses. Lil Dagover was fresh from Fritz Lang's breakthrough hit Destiny, Lya De Putti had a featured part in Joe May's epic The Indian Tomb and Aud Egede Nissen had been a star for at least six years. Thea von Harbou's scenario keeps the complicated story on track, while Murnau maintains subdued performances from the actors and injects occasional pieces of cinematic brilliance.
Most of Murnau's expressionist touches come from creative lighting and camerawork, and not the distorted sets of earlier efforts. When our lost Lorenz sinks into an alcoholic funk in an attempt to forget his misdeeds, we see him drinking with Mellitta, the doppelgánger of his dream girl Veronika Harlan. When they dance, the room swirls around his subjective viewpoint. An elevator-like contraption is used to make his nightclub table drop away into darkness, making Lorenz and Melitta literally 'sink' into a pit. In another 'impossible' angle a circus bicyclist flies over their heads in a tightly-framed cylinder, externalizing Lorenz's manic delirium.
Phantom's most famous expressionist image comes when Lorenz stumbles into a dark nighttime street, as alienated as the lost protagonist of any later film noir. An entire row of buildings tilts as if falling in on him, while the moon-shadows of the building-peaks pursue him through the street, like the shadow-fingers of the vampire in Nosferatu.
Lorenz Lubota also experiences a series of dreams in which he pursues but never catches Veronika's ghostly white coach, the title's phantom of passion. One blue-tinted dream culminates in an eerie Dietrich-like image of Veronika's serene face (pictured on the DVD cover).
Despite these bursts of brilliance Phantom does have its drawbacks. Alfred Abel (the mastermind of Metropolis) may have been considered perfect casting in 1922 but looks far too old to be a dreamy-eyed young poet; he comes off as a reckless dolt, dangerous to himself and others. The real character riches are in the supporting cast. Lorenz's mother intuits that he's a dithering dreamer. Aunt Schwabe has unrealistically assigned noble qualities to Lorenz that are lacking in her money-grubbing lovers. The idealized Marie Starke also seems to overestimate Lorenz's essential goodness.
Phantom avoids the moral preaching common to prestigious American silents of the time. Lorenz's sister Melanie becomes a debased kept woman. She ends the film alone and lost, but escapes immediate punishment. Lorenz pays the price for his crimes, eventually emerging from prison (in a neatly filmed wraparound flashback) ready to become a much better writer. The message seems to be that visionary romanticism and harsh reality don't mix well, and dreamers need to be protected from their destructive fantasies. Either that, or young men knocked down in the street should regain their senses before looking into the eyes of beautiful women. Utter madness is sure to follow.
The Flicker Alley Collection's DVD of F.W. Murnau's Phantom is a stunning, high-quality transfer of a sterling restoration that we wish could be performed on every silent classic. The image is sharp and steady with a full range of contrasts; the projection rate has been speed-corrected. As covered fully in an insert essay by Luciano Berriatua and Camille Blot-Wellens, the film's delicate tinting scheme has been carefully replicated. The show is a thing of beauty indeed.
Robert Israel's conducts his new score on the 2-channel stereo soundtrack. The film's restoration was overseen by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation at Wiesbaden.
UCLA film historian Janet Bergstrom presents a quality 15 minute featurette covering the film's production and its place in German cinema. A document gallery contains a number of highly rare items, including photos of special effects demo models made by the film's designer, Hermann Warm.
The text bio extra turns out to be 80 pages of fascinating information on the cast and production personnel. The handsome Hans Heinrich von Twardowski eventually played Reichsprotektor Heydrich in Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! Ilka Grüning has a small role as a phony Baronness; twenty years later in Casablanca she would play the elderly refugee proud to be learning English: "What watch?" "Ten watch." "Such much!"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: featurette, document gallery, text bios, essay on restoration of color tinting.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 18, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson