Phantom/Die Finanzen des Groβherzogs Review
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888-1931) is best known and most celebrated for films such as Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Tabu. He is one of the great masters of silent cinema and of visual storytelling. As his career developed, he would pare down the number of intertitles to the point where, in The Last Laugh and Tabu there are respectively one and none at all, apart from on-screen printed text. In this he was an influence on such directors as Hitchcock and the Anthony Asquith of A Cottage on Dartmoor. As the sound era dawned, Murnau, like Charles Chaplin, was reluctant to abandon this kind of purely visual filmmaking. His last film, Tabu has no spoken dialogue, its only concession to the new technology being a synchronised music and effects track. It’s fascinating to imagine how he would have dealt with the demands of talking pictures, as Chaplin had to do, if he had not died in a road accident.
Yet Murnau was much more prolific than that – he had three films released in 1922 alone - though as many of his films are lost or incomplete it’s no longer possible to have a full picture of his career. However, Masters of Cinema have commendably released several of his films on DVD, and they continue with this double-set of two of his lesser-known ones. While neither of them can be called top-flight Murnau – both are essentially genre pieces, namely a road-to-ruin melodrama and a comedy – both are certainly worth seeing and Murnau admirers should not hesitate. Both star or feature Alfred Abel, and were written by Thea Von Harbou, both best known these days for Metropolis, directed by Von Harbou’s husband, Fritz Lang.
Phantom, made in 1922 just after Nosferatu, unfolds in flashback and is divided into six acts. Lorenz Lahota (Abel) is a clerk who wants to be a poet. One day he is knocked down by a woman, Veronika (Lya De Putti) riding two horses. From that day on he becomes obsessed by the mysterious woman, an obsession that leads to his downfall.
Phantom was produced for Erich Pommer’s Decla company, whose most famous production was The Cabinet of Dr Caligari three years earlier. That film’s female lead, Lil Dagover, plays Lorenz’s faithful companion Marie in the opening and closing scenes. Phantom shares some of the earlier film’s expressionist style in its depiction of Lorenz’s descent into debauchery and madness. Lya De Putti plays a double role, her other one being Mellitta, a woman who comes into Lorenz’s life due to her resemblance to the elusive Veronika.
Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (The Grand Duke’s Finances) was made in 1924. Compared to the darkness of Phantom, this excursion into comedy may come as a surprise. It takes place in the Duchy of Abacco, which is is in dire financial straits. The Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke) plans to marry the Grand Duchess of Russia (Mady Christians), but other people have other plans. The film shows Murnau’s love of location filming, here in what was then Yugoslavia but is now Croatia. Alfred Abel turns up again, this time playing conman Philipp Collins, and Nosferatu himself, Max Schreck, appears in a small role. Working as a designer, though uncredited on the present print, was future director Edgar G. Ulmer, though as that appears to be mainly if not entirely from Ulmer’s own perhaps unreliable testimony, that fact should be accepted with some caution.
Both films are very well photographed. This is the work of Axel Graatkjaer and Theophan Ouchakoff on Phantom and two men who would become major DPs in Hollywood, Karl Freund and Franz Planer, on Die Finanzen….
You can’t make too many claims for these two films. Murnau made his first feature in 1919 and continued at a very prolific rate: Phantom was released three years later and was Murnau’s twelfth feature, while Die Finanzen… was his fourteenth. Some of the films from this period are now lost, as Phantom was until its restoration in 2006. The version of Die Finanzen… that survives is shorter than the film was originally, according to some by as much as thirty minures. While no doubt we should be grateful that they exist while others don’t, both films reward the attention, especially for admirers of the director.
Phantom and Die Finanzen des Großherzogs make up numbers 84 and 85 in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. The set comprises two DVD-9s, both encoded for all regions.
Both films are shown in versions restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, with music scores and tinted mostly throughout. (Some scenes in Phantom remain in black and white.) Given these films’ history, and the simple fact that these films are over eighty-five years old, the restoration is remarkable: contrast, so vital in black and white let alone tinted black and white like this, is excellent. Also, the film is transferred at the correct speed. There’s inevitable flickering, but that’s what silent films do.
Phantom has an orchestral score, composed and conducted by Robert Israel, and presented on the DVD in Dolby Digital 2.0, which plays as Surround in ProLogic mode. Die Finanzen…, by contrast, uses solo piano, played by Ekkehard Wölk, and presented in stereo. The intertitles are in the original German (those included as part of the restoration can be identified by the letters FWMS in the bottom left corner) with optional English subtitles to translate them.
The only on-disc extra is a commentary by David Kalat for Die Finanzen…. This is a thorough and informative talk, which covers all the bases: the film’s production and its place in Murnau’s career, and the contributions of the cast and principal crew members. Interestingly, Kalat runs counter to the idea that Murnau’s lack of dependence on intertitles was a gradual progression throughout his career, but rather something influenced by whether or not Thea Von Harbou was writing the film, as her screenplays tended to be verbose and her adaptations (both of these are such) overly literal. Kalat points out that other directors were making films that could have done without intertitles – he cites comedy shorts that have had theirs removed and still make perfect sense – except that intertitles were such a given for a silent film that it took directors like Murnau to do things a little differently.
Masters of Cinema’s booklet contains a long and thorough essay, “Murnau at the Crossroads” by Janet Bergstrom, which discusses both films. The booklet also includes film credits and many production stills and ends with a reproduction of a handbill for Phantom.