July 13, 2019
Phantom – Germany, 1922
Picture a man getting knocked over by an out-of-control carriage. At first, he appears to be unconscious – possibly even worse. A moment later, he comes to, and, in his rattled and likely concussed state, he stares at the beautiful young driver of the coach as she repeatedly inquires as to his well-being. Now, picture this man, his gaze frozen on the young woman who appears to be encircled in angelic white light, a contrast with the darker colors of the clothes and city surrounding him. The man rises, slightly stumbles forward, a look of confusion in his eyes. The young lady, seeing that he appears to be physically unharmed, gets back in her coach and rides off. Abruptly, the man takes off after the coach, his demeanor akin to that of a man possessed. Now, what would be your assessment of the man’s condition?
If I were a betting man, I say that most people would assume that he had some sort of brain trauma – a severe concussion, perhaps. After all, to ignore your physical well-being and chase after a woman you’ve only seen once is hardly the action of a man with all of his faculties functioning as they should. This impression would be strengthened by what comes next – a frantic, obsessive pursuit of a stranger that involves pleading with her extremely discomforted mother not to engage her to another man until he’s had a chance to pursue her. The woman wisely whispers for a servant to get her husband at once.
The character in question is Lorenz Lubota, a poor government desk clerk whose love of reading often takes precedence over his empty stomach. An interest as strong as this one usually indicates a romantic quality, yet it’s hard to see Lorenz ever being confused as a Romeo-type. His eyes avert contact, he doesn’t seem to apply himself to anything – certainly not to his job – and he seems utterly unaware that one of his neighbors has fallen head over heel for him. It’s entirely possible he’s never had a girlfriend or even been out on a date. As the film progresses, we witness Lorenz’s moral decline, as he begins to acquire both an inflated sense of self and an awareness of the importance of money if he is going to have the successful ending to his own skewed version of Romeo and Juliet.
Lorenz is played by Alfred Abel, and like many actors from the silent period he started out on the stage. By all accounts, he was rather successful there. His Wikipedia entry references his involvement in Berlin’s Deutschen Theate in 1904, nine years before he would make his first appearance on the silver screen. He would go on to play the leader of the underground city in Fritz Lang’s seminal film Metropolis. He even survived the transition to sound and appeared in 140 films during his twenty-five year film career. You don’t have that kind of longevity by chance.
Having said that, I must admit that he is wrong for the role of Lorenz Lubota. Born in 1879, Abel was over forty when he took on the part, and he looked it. In his face, we do not see the youthful naivety of a man whose emotions have suddenly overwhelmed him. Instead, there’s desperation, the look of someone who seems to be under the impression that he has only one chance at true love. His physical movements are manic, and when he isn’t making entirely inappropriate requests of complete strangers, he’s allowing delusions of grandeur to overwhelm him and cause him to entertain the notion that a perfect stranger would fall in love with him if only given the opportunity. All of this would be fine were the film to acknowledge that Lorenz’s actions have a medical explanation, yet as the film went on, it became clear that one was not coming. Where’s the doctor from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when you need him?
The uneven nature of the lead character almost overshadows the positives in the film, and there are many worth mentioning. I particularly enjoyed the depictions of Lorenz’s mother and his well-off aunt, and their strained relationship shines a light on the suffering that is allowed to go on because of disdain that some have for those who just can’t seem to pull themselves out of poverty. I also admired the way the film depicted the contrasting values of the young in the 1920s. In the film, Lorenz’s younger brother is an art student, and he dutifully takes care of his mother. Their sister could not be more dissimilar. She spends her evenings at a freewheeling tavern where alcohol flows liberally and men gather to enjoy the flirtations of much younger women, many of whom are openly looking to hook up with someone able to provide them with a life of fun and financial security.
I also admired many of Murnau’s directorial choices, particularly his use of light and darkness. In one scene, Murnau has Lorenz run through a city than seems to bending over and which is filled with shadowy figures who seem to know about Lorenz’s moral breakdown. Murnau also gets great performances from several of the cast. Frida Richard is a wonder as Lorenz’s mother, and Aud Egede-Nissen hits all the right notes as his morally lost sister. Anton Edthofer is impressive in the role of Lorenz’s corrupter, Mr. Wigottschinski, and Grete Berger is excellent in the very challenging role of Lorenz’s aunt, Pfandleiherin Schwabe, who is both the victim of a crime and an entirely classist individual. In fact, I’d venture to say that when Lorenz is not on screen or not the character driving the drama, the film is quite impressive.
Yet Lorenz is there, and Phantom is ultimately his story. Perhaps in another decade, the character would have been a World War I veteran dealing with PTSD or a doctor would diagnose his erratic behavior as being the result of the carriage accident. And characters would talk about this and declare their concern for his mental stability. This would make his character much more sympathetic, and we would see his decline as not moral failure but a tragic symptom of a much larger problem. We would also get a hint of the means by which he recovers his senses. Sadly, that is not this film. Still, I can’t say I disliked the film entirely, yet when a character begins a movie by declaring that what we’re going to see is both a confession and a release, his explanation should satisfy the viewer and make us empathize with the storyteller. This doesn’t happen in Phantom, and the fault is a performance that is at cross purposes with a narrative. (on DVD from Flicker Alley)
2 and a half stars
*Phantom is a silent film.