Phantom (1922)


(director: F. W. Murnau; screenwriters: Thea von Harbou/Hans Heinrich von Twardowski/from novel by Gerhart Hauptmann; cinematographers: Axel Graatkjaer/Theophan Ouchakoff; music: Robert Israel; cast: Alfred Abel (Lorenz Lubota), Grete Berger (Pawnbroker Schwabe), Lil Dagover (Marie Starke), Lya De Putti (Veronika Harlan/Melitta, the look-alike prostitute), Anton Edthofer (Wigottschinski), Aud Egede Nissen (Melanie Lubota), Karl Etlinger (Bookbinder Starke), Frida Richard (Lubota’s Mother), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Hugo Lubota); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Erich Pommer; Flicker Alley DVD; 1922-Germany-silent)

“It’s dreadfully slow-paced, overwrought and dated.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

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 byGerhart 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.

The bookish, dreamer Lorenz lives with his poor hard-toiling widowed mother (Frida Richard), his unhappy party-girl sister Melanie (Aud Egede Nissen), and his younger art student brother Hugo (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, the co-writer). He shows old man Starke (Karl Etlinger) poems he has written, who shows it to a professor with connections to publishers. Starke’s homespun daughter Marie (Lil Dagover) is smitten over Lorenz, who is so out of it that he remains unaware that she loves him. The kindly bookbinder hopes nice guy Lorenz will find success as a poet, and believes he will now get his big break. But the professor declares the poetry as rubbish. In the meantime, Lorenz fantasizes about what being a poet would mean for his chance of scoring Veronika. At the workplace of his stingy pawnbroker Aunt Schwabe (Grete Berger), Lorenz is surprisingly given money to dress like a poet. He then comes under the influence of rotten apple schemer Wigottschinski (Anton Edthofer), the sleazy boyfriend his sister now lives with, and gets caught up in lies and is talked into borrowing 60,000 marks from his gullible aunt and spends the money on a prostitute named Melitta (Putti, who also played Veronika) who looks just like Veronika. His loose living leads to the now drunken city clerk fired because of not showing up to work, his mother driven to her death-bed and auntie pressing charges of theft against him. It results in a prison term of 20 years, but there’s redemption because when Lorenz gets out the loyal Marie is there for him.

The film disappointed because I expected more from the director of Nosferatu. It’s more or less a workmanlike job and not close to being the kind of masterpiece Murnau is capable of delivering.