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Flicker Alley presents
F.W. Murnau's Phantom (1922)

"Dear Madam...I've only seen your daughter once...but I can't live without the hope of winning her for myself."
- Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: September 11, 2006

Stars: Alfred Abel, Lya de Putti, Frida Richard, Aud Egede Nissen, Anton Edthofer, Grete Berger
Other Stars: Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Karl Etlinger, Lil Dagover
Director: F.W. Murnau

Manufacturer: Ascent Media/Elektrofilm
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material)
Run Time: 01h:59m:24s
Release Date: September 12, 2006
UPC: 617311672897
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- BA-A- B-

DVD Review

One can be forgiven for expecting F.W. Murnau's followup to Nosferatu to be another horror film, especially with a title like Phantom. But instead he offers up a tale of obsessive love and the havoc that it wreaks upon a family. Adapted from a serialized novel by then-popular writer Gerhart Hauptmann (who himself appears in the prologue), it is nonetheless an important picture in Murnau's development and in the evolution of psychological cinema.

Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel) is an honest city clerk who lives with his mother (Frida Richard), sister Melanie (Aud Egede Nissen) and younger brother Hugo (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). As Lorenz walks to work, he is run down by the carriage of Veronika Harlan (Lya de Putti), who is the daughter of a wealthy hardware dealer. Coming to as she bends over him, he suddenly finds himself completely obsessed with Veronika and pursues her to her home, creating a scene when he is harshly turned away. After losing his job due to his antics, Lorenz runs into the double of Veronika, Melitta (also de Putti), the daughter of a destitute baroness (Ilka Grüning). Overcome by finding an accessible substitute for Veronika, Lorenz borrows 60,000 marks from his rich pawnbroker aunt Schwabe (Grete Berger) to treat Melitta in the manner that she would like to become accustomed. When the aunt learns that he has lost his job and deceived her as to the purposes of the loan, she demands repayment immediately, leaving Lorenz desperate and thoughts of robbery and murder begin to creep into his head.

The title phantom is not a ghost as such, but the thought of Veronika that pursues and harasses Lorenz. Indeed, even though Veronika herself is onscreen only a few seconds, she thoroughly dominates the movie. It's quite as if we, like Lorenz, can only obsess upon her from afar, with the merest glimpse being a momentous occasion. She also shows up in a thrice-repeated delusion as Lorenz reenacts the fateful run-in with her carriage. Each time a different effect is used, until at the last it is a ghostly carriage that runs over (and through) him, but even then he single-mindedly chases after it. The woman-as-vampire theme is in full force here, as Lorenz loses his livelihood and his own soul to Veronika and Melitta, even though Veronika's influence upon him is wholly unintentional. Melitta more than makes up for that, conspiring with her mother to take Lorenz for everything he has, eager to work his obsessions for their own benefit. In the pathetic reduction of Lorenz, there's more than a little of a precursor to that other great German silent classic, The Blue Angel.

Abel at 43 seems a bit too old for such a role, but he gives himself over to it wholeheartedly. His restrained style is an interesting counterpoint to the over-the-top emotions of the character; had a lesser talent taken the role, it would have run the risk of being ridiculous rather than moving. Abel would go on to be best known as the lead in Metropolis a few years later. Lya de Putti makes an impression with two very different portrayals of the doppelg&aauml;nger. Charming in both, it's easy to see why Lorenz might be driven to do desperate things for her sake. Melitta's ravenous appetites are shaded, with a strong helping of thoughtless entitlement mixed with with a bit of calculating rapaciousness. Frida Richard is more in the standard silent mode of the long-suffering mother driven to her deathbed by the actions of her children, and it's something of a weak spot to the modern viewer. One intriguing character is Wiggottschinski (Andre Edthofer), a hanger-on of Aunt Schwabe who hopes to wrest some of her riches from her grasp. He plays a key role in corrupting the vulnerable Lorenz, playing Mephistopheles to Lorenz's Faust, the bargain being the achievement of a misguided love. Edthofer supplies the character with an earthy crudity that is injected with a sense of a man of action; his moral compass destroyed, Lorenz succumbs to the appeal of a man who appears to know exactly what to do: the accidental metaphor for Germany over the next decade is impossible to miss.

From an historical perspective, Phantom is important for its use of the camera to achieve psychological effects. Building upon Caligari, there are some elements of Expressionism tossed in: one of the phantom coaches rides through a Caligari-like setting, while in another sequence the jagged shadows of houses pursue the running Lorenz. In yet another, the upper stories of the house appear to bend over him and close him in claustrophobically. Perhaps the most dazzling display of camerawork is a shot as Lorenz begins to lose his mind while dining out with Melitta. The camera starts at a horizontal view of the couple, then rises up directly over them, while Lorenz becomes increasingly agitated. The table then begins to drop away from the camera, until it is nearly lost in the darkness. Odd lights and incoherent shapes intrude upon the view, and it's clear that the pressures have become too much for Lorenz. Lest the viewer expect too much, however, these are brief shots, and much of the photography is standard proscenium action, with little camera movement.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame picture looks excellent. Although no positive prints from the era exist, miraculously the original negative is still extant and in good shape, with no nitrate deterioration visible at all. While there's the expected amount of flicker and minor nicks, and one section is somewhat on the scratchy side, there is a ton of detail and frequently excellent greyscale. The photochemical color tinting is reconstructed from clues found in the leader and splices in the negatives, although the colors occasionally are a bit heavy. While green is apparently correct for the intertitles, the neon lime green that is used seems unlikely. It should be noted that even though it's from a European source, this disc is from a native NTSC transfer, not a PAL/NTSC conversion, so no ghosting appears.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no


Audio Transfer Review: The esteemed Robert Israel contributes a full-length score, alternately using a piano trio and a fairly good-sized orchestra, depending upon the scene. Unabashedly romantic, the score wears its heart on its sleeve and may be a bit too much for some viewers. It's nicely recorded, with the piano trio in particular providing delicate sonic details, especially in the rich warmth of the cello. The delusions are signalled by brief quotations from The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which is a little disconcerting, but on the whole it's a fine score that supports the picture well.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Documentaries
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:10m:02s

Extra Extras:
  1. Booklet on the restoration and color tinting
  2. Gallery of documents
Extras Review: A fine documentary, Invitation to Phantom (15m:21s), provides background on Murnau and Hauptmann as well as some insightful analysis of the film itself. Special attention is given to how the special effects were achieved, especially in light of the hyperinflation of 1922 Germany and the need to economize at all costs. Substantial biographies of the major cast and crew are included, covering more than 80 onscreen pages. These are thoroughly researched and contain a trove of information. Finally, there is a document gallery that allows one to inspect at leisure many of the materials referenced in the documentary regarding the making of the picture. A substantial full-color booklet accompanies the disc, and provides a huge amount of information about the restoration and reconstruction of the film, especially regarding the color tinting in an effort to achieve something that truly reflects the look of the picture in 1922. It's a good read for anyone interested in the difficulties of restoring old films.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

An important item in the Murnau catalog finally reaches DVD, and Flicker Alley does it justice with an exceptionally fine rendition from the original negatives. Silent fans will surely want to add this to their collections; it's worth seeking out.

 


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