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Saturday 17 March 2007

Phantom (1922) F W Murnau

Here's what is almost a Who's Who of German silent film making. The director is F W Murnau, the genius director behind Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and the original Nosferatu, as well as other important films. The screenplay based on a novel by Gerhart Hauptmann is by Thea von Harbou, wife of another legendary director, Fritz Lang. The lead is Alfred Abel, who I know as the hero's evil industrialist father in Metropolis but who also appeared in other major films like Lang's Dr Mabuse the Gambler. Here he's a town hall clerk called Lorenz Lubota, who tells us through a diary the story of his crimes and atonement.

He doesn't seem much of a criminal to begin with, merely a mild mannered and low paid clerk who prefers the company of books to people and can't get to work on time because he's too busy showing people his poems and browsing the book stands. He lives with his mother, a Les Dawson-esque matron played by Frida Richard who had a busy career in silent film dating back to 1910 playing mutters and GroƟmutters. I'm sure I've seen her in something, but can't work out what, though she was in such films as Murnau's Faust and Lang's Die Nibelungen. Maybe she just looks like a number of Lon Chaney's characters!

When the film starts, his sister is also at home. She's played by Aud Egede Nissen, a wonderfully expressive Norwegian actress who was also in Dr Mabuse the Gambler and had appeared as the lead in The Phantom of the Opera as far back as 1916. She gets the first great cinematic shots here, posing in front of a broken mirror and she leaves home pretty quickly after a ruckus with her mother who wants to know what she does for a living. Of course she's not going to tell her mother that she's a bar prostitute.

Watching for Lorenz twice every day is his neighbour Maria Starke, who hasn't yet confessed her love for him, though it's pretty obvious, and she's played by no less than Lil Dagover, the Javanese born German actress who even by 1922 had starred for Fritz Lang in Destiny and the Spiders films, as well as the unforgettable The Cabinet of Dr Caligari for Robert Wiene. However Lorenz is more interested in her father, the bookbinder, and the mysterious blonde who knocks him down with her carriage.

She's Veronika Harlan, played as half of a double role by Lya de Putti, and she marks the beginning of his decline. Following bad advice about the quality and potential of his poems he borrows money from his rich pawnbroker aunt, Grete Berger who was in almost all of the films listed above: she was uncredited in Metropolis but had bigger parts in Destiny, Dr Mabuse the Gambler and Die Nibelungen, and was also the Countess in Paul Wegener's The Student of Prague, possibly the first horror film ever made, back in 1913. Anyway, Lorenz is a good man but gets caught up in the schemes of Wigottschinsky, a crook who's out to fleece his aunt dry and who takes up with his sister in the process. Bewitched by Veronika, who is completely out of his class, Lorenz begins to see her in strange dream sequences and pursues both her and her double, the daughter of a parasitic mother out to get all she can. This is Mellitta, also played by Lya de Putti, who ends up with a bigger part, it seems, than Lil Dagover.

The film is a good one but it's slow and subtle and takes its time in showing us its marvels. Especially early on it's a little too slow and subtle. Alfred Abel is excellent in a very different role to the one he played so well in Metropolis. He really sells us on the downward spiral that Lorenz finds himself floundering down and that's the triumph of the film. Grete Berger and Aud Egede Nissen have probably the best roles outside of Abel's and fortunately for us both actresses are more than up to the task. Everyone else involved is fine but they get far less to do because they have far less depth. Frida Richard gets to spend most of the film with her head in her hands so we miss out on her expressiveness. Dagover is the saintly character usually played by someone like Olivia de Havilland and Anton Edthofer plays Wigottschinsky like a slightly restrained serial villain: there's no bad in the one and no good in the other. All in all though, Phantom is another interesting German expressionistic silent movie and every one of those I've seen so far has been a good investment of my time.

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