Phantom (F.W. Murnau, 1922): Germany

Reviewed by Byron Potau.  Viewed on DVD.

For a film that was long thought to be lost, F.W. Murnau’s Phantom is extremely well preserved and is another example of Murnau’s genius.  Released the same year as Murnau’s Nosferatu, the film is not the masterpiece that film is, but does contain scenes that rival any in that film or in his entire career.

Lorenz (Alfred Abel) is a city clerk living with his mother (Frida Richard) and sister (Aud Egede Nissen), but he has aspirations of being a poet.  He is the perfect, dutiful son and is known as being an honest man.  When he lays eyes on the beautiful Veronika (Lya De Putti) he becomes obsessed and from there it is all downhill for him.  He continues to tell people he is a poet even though his poems were rejected by the publisher.  He stops going to work and spends much of his time stalking Veronika’s residence and spending more time with his sister who is of dubious reputation.  When he finds a look-alike to Veronika (Lya De Putti again) he showers her with gifts bought with money he swindled from his rich aunt by convincing her he can pay back the money with the royalties from his poems.  By chasing a phantom image of love, he brings about his downfall.
While the film is not the masterpiece one might expect from Murnau, it is still sprinkled with sheer moments of genius that make the film worth watching.  The viewer can clearly see Murnau extending the possibilities of cinema with his expressive camera work.  There are a handful of breathtaking scenes including one where Lorenz is feeling the world falling in on him and Murnau, through incredible cinematography from Axel Graatkjaer and Theophan Ouchakoff, shows the buildings around him caving in on him and their shadows chase him down the street.  It is a truly exhilarating scene to watch and evidence that Murnau was at the top of his craft. 

The acting in the film is, collectively, very mature for the silent film era and is one of the film’s many strengths.  However, the film is not without its flaws.  The story fails to be very intriguing despite Murnau’s expressionistic camera work.  This flaw is mostly due to the viewer’s lack of interest in the main character, Lorenz, whose actions are at times baffling and difficult to relate to.  Another problem with Lorenz is the casting of Alfred Abel to play him.  His acting is good enough, but he is far too old to have played the role. 

The film also suffers from excessive tinting which became a distraction after awhile.  But with so few films left from Murnau it is easy to forgive the flaws of this film and just be thankful there is another Murnau film out there that we can enjoy.


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