Phantom Murnau


Directed by F.W. Murnau — 1922, Germany — 120 minutes, black & white (color tinted), aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama

IN BRIEF, a hapless city clerk becomes obsessed with a beautiful young woman, which begins his descent into madness and crime; Murnau’s once-lost film, now fully restored, is a fascinating psychological study with extraordinary visual flourishes.


The great F.W. Murnau made Phantom (1922), about a mild-mannered clerk’s descent into madness, immediately after finishing his first masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922). Although for decades Phantom was dismissed as a “minor” work – by historians who likely had never seen the complete film, which was considered lost – Flicker Alley‘s exemplary release (discussed below) of the fully restored film reveals its astonishing psychological insight and visual power. Murnau is that rarest combination of psychologist, poet, and visual artist of the first rank. His best, and most influential, pictures are among the supreme achievements not only of the silent era but of all cinema: Nosferatu, The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927), and Tabu (1931). Murnau’s films increase in richness each time you re-see them, as images and themes interconnect – and it is a privilege, through this superb restoration, to have Phantom returned to his available body of work.

Despite its title and following Nosferatu (perhaps the most influential horror film ever made), Phantom is psychological, not supernatural. It tells the tale of a befuddled city clerk, with poetic aspirations, named Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel – Lang’s Metropolis) who runs into – or more precisely, is almost run over by the carriage of – a beautiful, wealthy young woman, Veronika Harlan (Lya De Putti – Dupont’s Variety). They have only a moment’s contact, but Lubota snaps and begins recklessly pursuing her. In one cringe-inducing scene, he finesses his way into the Harlans’ opulent home and asks Veronika’s parents for her hand in marriage. Lorenz’s own circumstances are strikingly different. He lives in a cramped apartment with his careworn mother (Frida Richard – Murnau’s Faust), sister Melanie (Aud Egede Nissen – Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), who’s entering a life of prostitution, and artistic younger brother Hugo (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski – Dieterle’s Sex in Chains / Geschlecht in Fesseln). As Lorenz’s obsession for the unattainable Veronika goes full-time, he loses his much-needed job – the anticipated publication of his poems (there are only 10) falls through. They were praised to the skies by the kindly bookseller Mr. Starke (Karl Etlinger – Pabst’s Joyless Street), whose daughter Marie (Lil Dagover – Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is smitten with Lorenz; but a literary authority calls them trash. Just when you thought Lorenz was at his lowest, he meets a double of Veronika, the vampish Mellitta (also played by Lya De Putti). She’s the daughter of a threadbare baroness who seems more pimp than mother (Ilka Grüning – who 20 years later in Casablanca played the sweet elderly refugee trying to learn English). Lorenz, infatuated with his Veronika-doppelganger, lavishes gifts on her, paid for with 60,000 marks swindled from his rich pawnbroker aunt, Schwabe (Grete Berger – Lang’s Die Niebelungen). Of course, Mellitta and her mother constantly demand more, and more. Lorenz enters into a scheme to rob his aunt with the aid of her disgruntled bad-boy-toy Wigottschinski (Anton Edthofer – Grune’s The Street), who’s now keeping Lorenz’s “fallen” sister Melanie on the side. Their plan spirals out of control, with dire consequences.

Just the actors’ credits listed above suggest how central Phantom is to one of film’s most influential, and fascinating, periods: German cinema between the wars – the era of Murnau, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, G.W. Pabst. Behind the camera, we find the legendary Erich Pommer, who produced many of the films which define this golden age: Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919 – which unleashed Expressionism on the screen), The Last Laugh and all of Murnau’s other films, Metropolis (1927) and Lang’s other pictures, Dreyer’s first masterpiece: Michael / Mikaël (1924), von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), and dozens more. Phantom’s innovative production designer, Hermann Warm, also did The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Lang’s Destiny (1921), Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Henrik Galeen’s The Student of Prague (1927), Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1931).

Phantom’s screenplay is attributed to Thea von Harbou, who wrote M (1931) and all of Lang’s other German films (they were married until 1933, when she went to work for the Nazis and he escaped to Hollywood). The script’s uncredited co-writer is actor/author Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, who plays Hugo – his angular, tormented good looks made him the poster boy for Expressionist acting, and in fact his screen debut was as the student/murder victim Alan in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Phantom is based on Nobel laureate Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1922 novel Phantom, which is now available online in a free, unabridged English translation. With the ultimate seal of authorial approval, Hauptmann appears as himself, in the opening minute of the film. Strikingly, Murnau both faithfully follows the book’s plot yet turns his additions – notably Lorenz’s hallucinations – into the most original and arresting scenes.

One reason Phantom sticks in your head – much as Veronika’s “phantom” image remains fixed in Lorenz’s – is because it’s what you might call a psychological ‘war’ film. The battle is between opposite extremes, both external and internal. Stylistically, we see this in the clash between Naturalism (Hauptmann made his reputation by bringing social realism to Germany, in the 1892 play The Weavers) and Expressionism (which jarringly portrays subjective experience through distorting stylistic extremes, as in Lorenz’s hallucinations). Psychologically we feel, and see, the struggle through the tortured Everyman character of Lorenz – a basically decent guy, but one whose lack of self-understanding leads him to make a series of increasingly terrible decisions.

As Lorenz, Alfred Abel could hardly be more different from his starring role as Fredersen, the overlord of Lang’s futuristic Metropolis. His demeanor is exactly what Murnau needs to embody the film’s split: part schlumpy Naturalism, and part almost-cadaverous Expressionism. But at 43, he’s perhaps too ripe for the role (his siblings Hugo and Melanie seem half as old). With such a drastic difference in the apparent ages of love object and stalker (er, lovelorn pursuer), obsession feels more like rank perversion – but in Hauptmann it’s even worse. Shades of Lolita, the novel’s Lorenz (the narrator of the first-person book) reveals, in chapter XLIV, that Veronika “was at that time, I judged, about fourteen. But I might have been deceived, she might perhaps be between fifteen and sixteen.” At least actress Lya De Putti was, and looks, a post-jail-bait 23. On the other hand, the age of Abel’s character could be seen as a sly rebuke of the Protestant work ethic in full force (to the extent that if you miss a day at your job, a ‘truant officer’ comes knocking on your door to read you the riot act). One can imagine that Lorenz has been too busy conforming, for decades, to have had time even for even romantic fantasies (despite the suspicions this, and his poetical penchant, would raise about his manliness). In any event, Murnau draws a performance from Abel which, against all odds, makes him simultaneously creepy, sympathetic and – despite occasional lapses into ‘playing to the balcony’ theatrical gestures – natural. Even if (hopefully) we haven’t fallen into a chaotic emotional pit like Lorenz, we understand him – thanks to Murnau, who takes us deep inside the man’s mind and emotions, even as he exposes some troubling fault lines in society.

Having debuted as a director in 1919, just three years earlier, Phantom comes at the exact mid-point – the eleventh of 21 films – of Murnau’s tragically brief career, which promised limitless achievement. He died in an automobile crash in 1931, five years after moving to Hollywood to make Sunrise; another loss is that half of his films are irretrievable – which makes this restoration of Phantom all the more indispensable.

This film connects in fascinating ways – both stylistically and thematically – with Murnau’s other works. As in most of his other films, including even a substantial part of Nosferatu, Murnau depicts a realistic environment of homes, workplaces, shops, and public locales – but there is a gaping divide between the upper-crust (the Harlans’ mansion, the ritzy restaurants (“beer gardens”) which Lorenz can ill afford) and the seedy (Aunt Schwabe’s pawn shop, Wigottschinski’s low-life haunts, the borderline squalor of the Lubotas’ flat). This split is further emphasized by the city – Germany’s Breslau (which after World War II became Wroclaw in south-west Poland) – where both the novel and film are set, although Murnau’s is on a studio backlot. That recreation lets him mold the real Breslau to his own designs, as he blends Lorenz’s character and his city – giving it a disorientingly timeless feel – into one. He both brings out and pumps up the dual nature of this ancient city, which for a thousand years has remained a commercial center, linking trade routes between the Black Sea and western Europe.

On the one hand, we have the modern (for its 1900 setting) business district, but go a few block further and you’re smack in the Dark Ages, surrounded by oppressive Gothic buildings (whose designs here are further pumped up with Expressionist angles and shadows). Murnau lets us see that the town is more central to Lorenz’s life – and crushing self-limitations – than even he realizes. In Breslau, everyone falls into one of two camps: either prudes or prostitutes – forget the middle ground, it’s nowhere to be found. This schizophrenic architectural space lets Murnau bring together, and subtly collide, the film’s Naturalism, as seen in the town’s prosaic parts, and Expressionism, when the stunning special effects scenes depict the tortured underside of his everyday (nightmare) world, with buildings crashing all around him, and a restaurant’s floor swallowing him whole.

Compared with Murnau’s imminent series of masterpieces, notable for their revolutionary use of fluid movement (as in The Last Laugh and Sunrise), his camera in Phantom is largely immobile. And that’s just as it should be. This film is the reflection of Lorenz’s inner life, and it is best served by static images and cramped compositions. The man is frozen within himself and his dream world, so it’s apt that the most kinetic moments in the film are nothing more than his dreams and hallucinations: static man, static world, static camera – with occasional defining bursts of phantasmagorical violence.

Yet it’s not only those effects scenes which reveal Lorenz’s psychological stress. Murnau cagily transforms even the film’s realistic surfaces into a series of reflections on what drives Lorenz. It’s a world whose space are either cramped and suffocating (the Lubotas’ apartment, Schwabe’s pawnshop, Lorenz’s clerk’s office, the prison entrance, the descending ‘table for two’ in the restaurant) or vast, almost inspiring agoraphobia (Breslau’s busy thoroughfares by day – or their opposite: the too-empty nocturnal streets where enormous vampiric shadows pursue Lorenz). Every locale, even some of the most unlikely, hold menacing shadows – sometimes in the foreground, as with all of the “vice” locations in the second half, but even the best- and best-lit places, like the Harlans’ mansion or the elegant taverns, have dark, dark corners.

In one of the film’s subtlest aspects, Murnau even uses unnatural textures to underscore Lorenz’s disorientation, like the extremely rough wood which surfaces Schwabe’s pawnshop/home, or the impossible clouds of blossoms which waft through the final scene; there’s even something vaguely terrifying about the cobblestones which Lorenz runs across, pursued by the giant shadows in his fantasy. Not only does Murnau show, through his resonant images, that he understands Lorenz more fully than the character does himself, he also creates an even more incisive – and complex – Lorenz than the one in Hauptmann’s unprofound novel. (It was originally written as a serial novel in the popular magazine Berlin Illustrated; it seems doubtful that Hauptmann ever considered it one of his defining works – but it was certainly very successful, helped in no small measure by the great success of this film, which was made a year before it appeared in hardcover book form.)

Murnau makes it clear that Phantom – as a reflection of Lorenz – is all about the voyeuristic gaze. Voyeurism exists as both seeing the actual person but also fantasizing, with increasing obsession and morbidity, about them. One of Lorenz’s climactic (in more ways than one) fantasy images of Veronika – seeing her in close-up, tinted a luminous blue, her head thrown back sensuously – simultaneously makes her appear both erotic and embalmed. That polarity, taking sexual ambivalence to astonishing levels, defines Lorenz and, by extension, his world. Murnau turns the entire film into an extension of Lorenz’s gaze, both external and internal.

The clearest example of this is how Murnau takes the theme of opposites and doubles, from Hauptmann’s novel, and then goes crazy (so to speak) both expanding and enriching its use throughout every aspect of this film. (While I enjoyed Phantom on a first viewing, the more I re-saw it, the more I saw in it – and the more fascinating it became.)

The root cause of all the warring opposites is, of course, sex. Lorenz is torn between his desire to be a dutiful son and upstanding cog in the bureaucratic wheel and, well, his plain old intrinsic human desire, which he’s obviously bottled up his entire life. This split within Lorenz is reflected in the narrative by a series of people seen in opposition. Among the men, we have the split between his gentle artist brother Hugo and the volatile hustler Wigottschinski. (Murnau wisely drops Wigottschinski’s distractingly over-the-top “political” posturing – which merely rationalizes his criminal tendencies – as seen in this diatribe from chapter LV: “[Wigottschinski] declared that he was an anarchist, and that he approved of any and every means of depriving the bourgeoisie of their plunder. He had vowed war to the knife against the exploiting state, against capitalism. Property was robbery, he maintained, and there was the greatest merit in robbing a band of thieves. … one must regard women like Aunt Schwab as cancerous sores on the body of humankind. He called her a blood-sucker…” etc.) The richest series of oppositions, reflecting Lorenz’s inner conflicts, are all women.

Imagehere’s the rift between his saintly Mother (who bears an uncanny resemblance, in both demeanor and deed, to Brigitte Mira’s title character in Fassbinder’s Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975)) and her long-estranged sister, the pawnbroker Aunt Schwabe (Lorenz was the only relative she liked, although that feeling certainly changes by the end). Unfortunately, Schwabe – the most interesting woman in the novel – is considerably reduced in the film, which depicts her as merely a grasping, money- and man-hungry outcast. Hauptmann reveals a deeper character, whose understanding, however jaded, allows her to function successfully, albeit from society’s margins: “Aunt Schwab, who with her keen understanding had seen through the glittering shell of our social conditions, and perceived the canker-worm at the heart of it, had thereby arrived at a sometimes terrifying open-mindedness. In almost no respect would she deign to recognize accredited values as such. On the other hand, she could almost read off a man’s back his character and his debts.” (chapter XXVIII). The “keen understanding” of her novelistic counterpart (also in distinct contrast to Hauptmann’s “anarchist” Wigottschinski) would have made her an even better foil to the self-deluding Lorenz. She’s gone into a disreputable milieu, but kept her integrity even while becoming rich – and getting flesh and blood lovers instead of a phantom. Yes, Schwabe’s a bitch, but sometimes you have to be.

Another pair of opposites is the sweet but disturbingly naive Marie, and Lorenz’s increasingly debauched sister, Melanie (no Aunt Schawbe she). Like her brother, Melanie is torn between Mother Lubota’s workaday respectability and the allure of sexual combustibility.

Of course, the most notable, and central, example of these oppositions is the dueling doppelgangers within Lorenz’s mind: the ethereal Veronika versus her shadowy vamp double, Mellitta (both played by Lya De Putti). Here’s how Hauptmann has Lorenz describe the phenomenon, in an excerpt (from chapter L) which is also typical of the overheated prose – and self-deluding narrator:

     I was actually frightened, because Melitta to my thinking resembled Veronica in a remarkable way.
     From this moment a wonderful confusion began in me, whereby in a mystic, or let us rather say abnormal, manner I united the images of the two girls.
     To be sure, I told myself, this girl is not really Veronica, but Veronica is giving me a sign through her, is using her to get into communication with me.
     This idea took shape like a flash and possessed me from then on like a perception of the highest truth.
     Melitta seemed to be Veronica’s age [of around 14]. I found out later … that she was considerably older. Now she … had for me something absolutely childlike. … dainty little nose … the mouth of a suckling…. To anticipate at once: Melitta had a real affection for me.

Oh, sure she did – the little “suckling.” Talk about making the skin crawl.

One way Murnau uses cinematic means to expand the implications of the source novel is by casting three actresses, for the four young-women roles, who resemble each other: of course, with Veronika and Mellitta it’s a perfect match. This produces considerably more than multple mirror images – in a film which uses a series of literal mirror shots, strikingly composed, to further enrich the theme. Recall that the first time we see Melanie, she shares the frame with her fragmented mirror image, as she (literally) tarts herself up; the unbalanced composition also reveals much about her troubled emotional state, as she prepares to continue exploring the night life (symptomatically, she can never brush her hair into an ordered coif, no matter how hard she tries). The film contains several other evocative mirror shots with Melanie, which highlight her downward spiral. The most (melo)dramatic mirror of all is narcissistic Mellitta’s; it not only reflects her vanity, in full frontal view, it also shrinks and imprisons poor Lorenz, who paid for it. The image is vertiginous in more ways than one, as it suggestively foreshadows Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). There, James Stewart meets a lookalike of the woman he obsessed over and lost (Kim Novak), then throws money hand over fist at her – fancy dresses and hair style – until she becomes the spittin’ doppelganger of her predecessor. The similarities with Lorenz and “his” Mellitta-as-Veronika are striking, and equally disturbing.

What is it about doppelgangers that makes them gnaw at us – in some, like Lorenz, to the point of madness?

The motif of the eerie double dates back millennia, and can be found in cultures around the world. The arts have taken a shine to doppelgangers in such classic tales as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1814 novel The Devil’s Elixirs, Poe’s 1839 short story “William Wilson,” Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella The Double, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which Murnau filmed as Der Januskopf (1920). There have been countless doppelganger films – ranging from horror to suspense to romantic comedy – including Henrik Galeen’s fantastical The Student of Prague (1927 – designed by Hermann Warm; Galeen wrote Nosferatu), Hitchock’s thrilling Strangers on a Train (1951), and Buñuel’s wry That Obscure Object of Desire (1977 – the enticing woman of the title is played by two different actresses, to represent different aspects of her personality). Despite differences of genre, all doppelgangers are destructive, in that they break down our independent sense of self – making us feel more adrift, both in ourselves and in the cosmos, than before. Although Phantom’s doppelgangers are not supernatural, like most doubles in other works, as they evolve they become increasingly terrifying, reflecting how the film moves from (twisted) romance to melodrama to thriller. But even at the end, part of us smirks at Lorenz’s folly, because we’d never be that crazed… would we? Could we?

Freud, for one, wouldn’t bet on it. Although the good doctor doesn’t possess every key for unlocking our minds’ secret chambers, some of his insights are revelatory, like those on doppelgangers/doubles in his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny.” Freud’s ideas had a profound impact on Expressionism, and all of modernist art; a cultivated man like Murnau may even have read the essay – it can certainly be applied to this film. Freud discusses how the uncanny – that creepy feeling when the line between reality and fantasy blurs – arises as the recurrence of something forgotten and repressed. He opines, “The theme of the ‘double’ has been very thoroughly treated by Otto Rank (1914). He has gone into the connections which the ‘double’ has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, with guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death; but he also lets in a flood of light on the surprising evolution of the idea. For the ‘double’ was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death’, as Rank says; and probably the ‘immortal’ soul was the first ‘double’ of the body. This invention of doubling as a preservation against extinction has its counterpart in the language of dreams…. Such ideas, however, have sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man [and in Phantom, Lorenz Lubota]. But when this stage has been surmounted, the ‘double’ reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.”

Before looking at those two highly suggestive final sentences in connection with the ending of Phantom, let’s see where the film’s multiple doubles lead Lorenz and the film. In a word: breakdown. In six words: breakdown and (literally) fantastic special effects.

Curiously – revealingly – Lorenz is both passive, an obsessive voyeur, yet his hallucinations take on increasingly violent form, from being run over by his unattainable-lady-love’s carriage (again and again and again and again) to rows of gabled buildings collapsing around him – while the buildings’ fang-like shadows chase after him, and more.

There are only seven major special effects, totaling about a minute, but their inspired use gives the film its greatest visual and emotional jolts. They also frequently provide dramatic climaxes, for the six acts – labeled in intertitles – into which the picture is divided. The seemingly Naturalistic depiction of the bulk of the film fits Lorenz, but these bursts of Expressionist dementia reveal his twisted inner life. As mentioned above, these defining scenes were added by Murnau; they are not in Hauptmann.

While unconvinced by Lorenz’s “cure” – boasting of which is the entirety of his memoir (which is the text of Hauptmann’s novel; Murnau shows him beginning to write, in the prologue, and completing, in the epilogue) – I am convinced that Murnau has profound insight into Lorenz: vastly greater than the character’s dubious insight into himself and, it seems, deeper even than Hauptmann’s. His conventional confessional novel is what it is, but Murnau’s film is rich and complex, on so many levels, that it elevates an antiquated best-seller into a timeless work. Murnau achieves that by providing us with a view both above Lorenz (of the social context: Breslau’s stratified and contradictory society) and below him, digging far deeper into his psychic depths than Hauptmann ever does.

Falling in “love” is one thing, but getting run over by it in a carriage, then chasing after it like a madman – both while awake and dreaming – is quite another (still, its less fatal the old folk metaphor of getting ‘struck by the thunderbolt’). Murnau uses the four carriage scenes to define the film’s narrative structure. The initial scene is, of course, realistic, while the three subsequent ones are highly stylized but in tellingly different ways. Their evolution, or rather de-evolution, mirrors Lorenz’s deteriorating mind. They go from the extreme Expressionism of the first, with the coach riding out of a black hole in a grotesquely distorted painting of Breslau, to the second, which is deeply unsettling: the coach, chased by Lorenz, emerges out of darkness – there is nothing else anywhere in the pitch-black universe. Subtly, the final iteration is not the most visually extreme, but it is the most visceral: the phantom coach runs right through Lorenz’s insubstantial body – still, the poor ectoplasmic sap chases after it. We’ve seen digital versions of this in a hundred ghost movies, like Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996), but in 1922 it was revolutionary: not because it was unprecedented – Georges Méliès’s wonderful trick photography achieved similar effects twenty years before – but because of its unnerving psychological impact, which shows Murnau at his (early) best. He knew exactly when and how many Expressionistic jolts to include: a lot in Nosferatu, but just a few in Phantom.

The most spectacular, and revealing, effect of all is the last. While dining Mellitta in a posh restaurant he can’t afford, Lorenz imagines them falling deeper and deeper into a pit. As he continues his descent, suddenly acrobats appear on jet-speed bicycles, whizzing around the spiraling orifice. Since we’ve already invoked Freud, it seems mandatory to speculate about the vaginal symbolism. And the frighteningly misogynistic aspect of that image brings up questions about Lorenz’s deeper nature.

With hallucinations like these, instead of passive-aggressive, Lorenz seems passive-apocalyptic. What’s going on here, to engender such violence?

The most obvious answer is, of course, Lorenz’s sexual frustration, brought on by a lifetime of repression. ‘Fools for love’ is one of the oldest archetypes, from ancient myths like Oedipus, to cutting-edge thrillers like Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy (2004). Similarly, Murnau’s Phantom has dimensions which are much less socially-acceptable than romantic obsession, which has always been big box office – even before there was a box office.

For one thing, Phantom’s world – for all of its stratification – is less rigid than it wants to be. How easy it is for women, like Mellitta and Melanie, to fall into prostitution – but we all knew about that. What’s more shocking is how casually Mellitta’s baroness mother has taken up the role of her daughter’s pimp. And although Wigottschinski is a man’s man, he’s also a woman’s kept man – and that’s cutting close to the quick of male ‘supremacy,’ wherein anything which makes a guy like a doll is to be bashed. This slipping of roles and identities seems yet another factor in Lorenz’s disintegration.

Another has to do with the two Mel-‘s. Is Mellitta solely Lorenz’s double for Veronika… or is she, possibly, also a substitute for his own sister, Melanie? The identical first syllable of their names is in Hauptmann, but Murnau highlights the incestuous connection by casting actresses who bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. Murnau subtly plays the incest card in another way too. The embrace between Hugo and Melanie – who is about to disappear from the family forever – is more like that between lovers than brother and sister; to compound the queasy effect, Murnau has them kissing right next to their dying mother. As if that’s enough of a hint that The Family is breaking down, at the same moment Lorenz is off robbing Aunt Schwabe. This may be another – buried – part of Lorenz’s meltdown, even though neither he, Hauptmann, nor Murnau dare speak its name.

Speaking of “the Love which dare not speak its name” (a line penned by Oscar Wilde’s turncoat boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas), Hauptmann has a passage which, whether intentionally or not, suggests some things about Lorenz which he’d be mortified to hear – and not just the incest angle. This scene is in Murnau – when Lorenz stumbles upon his sister out with a sugar-daddy in a fancy night club – but not the unfilmable commentary: “I … was attracted in an indefinable way by the vision, which I only saw from behind. She had something strong and youth-like about her, one might say something Appollonic [sic].” (chapter XXXVII). As we know from bisexual Nobel laureate Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella of unrequited same-sex obsessive “love,” Death in Venice, and many other works, such allusions to ancient Greece are coded ways of signifying homosexuality. (Trivia buffs take note: the related theme of the authority figure brought low by an aggressive seducer – especially popular in pre-Nazi Germany, as we see in Phantom – was given classic form in the 1905 novel by Mann’s older brother Heinrich, Professor Unrat, which von Sternberg filmed as The Blue Angel – and which Fassbinder reimagined in Lola.) For all of his panting private passions, Lorenz remains curiously – or is it revealingly – passive, if groveling, when he’s with Mellitta. Hmmm…. Later there is a scene of Lorenz, with a curiously unprecedented lack of detail (he over-writes shamelessly the rest of the time), half-describing his degradation after entering the criminal world: “I had become acquainted with all sorts of types of male and also female rogues, and had plunged with a kind of suicidal fury into the vortex of sensual orgies. Things went on there, and my sister even participated in them, than which nothing more animal or satanic can be imagined, and the recollection of which still corrodes my soul with burning stains. Inextinguishable, stinking stains.” (chapter LXI)

Don’t you wish Murnau had filmed this? It certainly presents an intriguing, if salacious, ‘double double,’ both to the repressiveness of traditional Breslau and even to Lorenz’s mimed, but never acted on, passion. Murnau as an artist who was also a gay man seems to have felt a special connection with this material, for all of its pulp-fiction origins – he understood, and suggestively depicted, its myriad contradictory layers. Considering the homophobia of his time – although conditions for GLBT people in Germany were markedly better than in the past, and would remain so for a few more years, until Hitler ascended – Murnau may have felt a connection with Hauptmann’s Lorenz when he says, “I recognized that here was something which had got me in its power without my will, indeed against my will, and had commanded me.” (chapter XXIV). Lorenz is, at least at face value, talking about Veronika, but for Murnau the words might also reflect his gay identity, which society – like the Breslaw we see in this film – dictated that he keep locked away.

Like so much in Phantom, Murnau is himself a double creation: born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe (scion of a successful middle-class family: his father a textile manufacturer, his mother a schoolteacher), he changed his last name to Murnau (honoring his love for an artists’ colony to which he belonged; also plumpe in German means clumsy. Perhaps being gay at that time, in that place, kept him from finding the private life he wanted (despite his artistic triumphs): one of Murnau’s most poignant remarks, made soon before his death, was that he’d never been able to find a home. (Perhaps if he’d lived longer.) In any event, there is a palpable sense of yearning in all of his films, whether it’s the vampire of Nosferatu or the star-crossed island lovers of Tabu, or Lorenz here. But Lorenz ends up happily ever after… doesn’t he?

Maybe not. Murnau seem to have come up with a richly subversive ending – if not resolution – to his film, even as he once again complexifies Hauptmann’s book.

Although Lorenz would be offended – possibly to the point of violence (judging by his actions in the scene where he finds his sister and her ‘gentlemen’) – I must say that I never for a moment believed that he loved Veronika or her double Mellitta; and his scenes in the framing story with Marie make him seem as hypnotized as the characters who fall under Nosferatu’s spell. After all, Nosferatu hypnotizes his victims, but Lorenz hypnotizes himself: Which is worse?

ImageIt’s not just the hysteria which Murnau ratchets up from the novel, it’s the idealization too. Just look at the (ironic) effect of that final ‘blossoming orchard’ scene: it’s overkill – like he’s dead and gone to the town’s prudish idea of heaven. Recall Freud’s comment, quoted above, about the “uncanny harbinger of death.” It should be noted that the blossoming is also a play on Lorenz’s name, as Hauptmann and his English translator, Bayard Quincy Morgan, spell out in chapter XLIII: “The Lorenz Lubota of today, whom father-in-law and wife call Lenz. Lenz! They call me Lenz! Well, Why not? Is not every spring [‘Lenz’ is a word for spring. Tr(anslator).] preceded by the stormy … autumn and winter? Perhaps they are not so far wrong in this appellation, if it is to suggest new sprouts and blossoms of future fruits. Is there not growing up here perhaps, under the calm stroke of my pen, a fruit? Is the air of my spirit not pregnant with sprouts and strange blossoms?” Murnau has given the audience such an overdose of the ‘happy ending’ it demands that it sticks in the throat – it’s as much a “phantom,” here of domestic satiety, as Veronika ever was.

Other gay filmmakers, making mainstream movies, also employ subversive endings of chilling domesticity, including Vincente Minelli in the darkest of all ‘family musicals,’ Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Of course, many viewers will take the final scene literally, as the triumph of domestic love over, well, everything that’s come before. Still, it seems at least – if not more – subversive than salutary. That’s partly because we never see Lorenz undergo the painful, and extended, psychological process necessary for him to be healed of his deep-rooted pathology. Yes, he goes off to prison, but so what? Hauptmann even has Lorenz specify that he “spent six years, four months, and twenty-one days” there; tellingly, Murnau – in another possibly ironic twist – shows Lorenz entering the looming prison gates (which recall those in Lang’s Destiny), fade out to black, then immediately fade in – that was quick! –with the gates opening and our ex-con returning to the hearty handshake of his new father-in-law, Herr Starke (one hopes that he’s more astute about Lorenz the man than Lorenz the “poet”) and the tender embrace of his eager bride, Marie. Metaphorically speaking, the film seems to end on a chord which at first sounds heavenly sweet, only to modulate into threatening dissonance by its own excesses. Suppression – glossing over – isn’t the same as the understanding necessary for emotional wholeness, no matter how many hundreds of pages of overheated “confession” you write.

Let’s not forget that, despite Lorenz’s moving from prison into a love nest with a beautiful bride, he has in fact failed. Compare this ending with that of Nosferatu, in which Hutter’s (the Jonathan Harker character) quest to contain external evil fails (since he canot acknowledge the evil within himself); it’s his wife Ellen who must sacrifice herself in order to save the city. Here, Lorenz’s quest to save himself fails, and it’s only through a woman – his wife Marie, her name the same as that of the Virgin Mary (‘Marie’ in German) – that he’s able to function in society… or is he? He’s living in a secluded home, paid for by his wife’s father. Cynics would argue that his wife is paying for his comfort by sacrificing her life – shades of Ellen Hutter – for him, a man she fell in love with before she ever had a chance really to know him (in both the novel and film). In an ironic twist, Lorenz can be seen as Marie’s “phantom,” although he is a socially-accepted, even -mandated, one by Breslau’s conformist standards.

For all of Lorenz’s broad smiles, and protestations of “redemption,” if I were Marie, I’d watch my back.

If you want to join me in a wild speculation, come along: Lorenz strikes me as a man with a potentially troubling future – as someone, never healed inside, who might jump at the chance to stone state-identified “troublemakers” and “criminals” and, oh yes, “money-lenders.” Of course, Germany fell for dysfunctional myths like the ones we see projected in Phantom – the stark dichotomy of either Very Very Good/Repressed or Very Very Bad/Chaotic, with no balanced middle-ground. And we know how it ended for a generation. It’s a reminder not only to keep your eye on the “cured” Lorenz, and the politicians he’ll vote for, but on what myths audience clamor for at the box office.

Behind – and beyond – the film itself is Murnau, who lifts us beyond fractured Lorenz’s repressive psyche and oppressive society. He is the film’s ultimate balance, and our – sometimes cryptic – guide: to what extent consciously and to what extent intuitively, who can say. Yes, he’s also the ultimate voyeur: he not only gazes at the gazer Lorenz, he defines how we see him and his distorted world. But Murnau is a true artist, one who sees – and expresses through cinema – life’s contradictions and complexities. He shows us that it’s not all clouds of blossoms and fantasy relationships. Murnau gives us ravishing images… but then he wants us to look behind them to what’s real.

Murnau’s images, with their complex layers of contradictory meaning, play off each to reveal what’s beneath their surfaces. Unlike Mellitta’s, and Veronika’s, teasing, Murnau’s images actually can deliver the goods. They truthfully, if not obviously, reflect the tensions between the most fundamental ‘double’ of all – the split between the socially-dictated outer-self and the integral inner-self. His images can allow us – upon reflection, as it were, and if we want – to peel away the layers of illusion and delusion until we come (at least closer) to what’s real.

Only with that knowledge can we be whole; so could Lorenz, of course, but he seems “happy” to continue chained to the wall of Plato’s cave, blissfully mistaking shadows for the reality behind them, which he can’t even imagine.

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  • Directed by F.W. Murnau
  • Written by Thea von Harbou and (uncredited) Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, based on the novel by Gerhart Hauptmann
  • Produced by Erich Pommer
  • Cinematography by Axel Graatkjaer and Theophan Ouchakoff
  • Production Design by Hermann Warm
  • Art Direction by Erich Czerwonski and Vally Reinecke
  • New Original Musical Score: Robert Israel

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  • Alfred Abel as Lorenz Lubota
  • Grete Berger as Aunt Schwab, the pawnbroker
  • Lil Dagover as Marie Starke
  • Lya De Putti as Veronika Harlan/Mellitta
  • Wilhelm Diegelmann
  • Anton Edthofer as Wigottschinski
  • Aud Egede Nissen as Melanie Lubota
  • Olga Engl as Harlans Harlan’s Wife
  • Karl Etlinger as Starke, the bookbinder
  • Ilka Grüning as Baroness
  • Adolf Klein as Harlan
  • Frida Richard as Lubota’s Mother
  • Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as Hugo Lubota
  • Heinrich Witte as a Clerk

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Video Release

Flicker Alley‘s DVD of Phantom is exceptional in every way, from vivid image quality, to a haunting new orchestral score by composer Robert Israel, to a wealth of supplements (both on the disc itself and in the booklet essay) which illuminate every aspect of this neglected film’s production and restoration. Phantom’s restoration merits special praise. This fascinating picture, long considered lost, was painstakingly prepared – using the best parts of different source elements – in collaboration between the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation, Wiesbaden, Germany and several other institutions. Flicker Alley’s transfer is exceptionally vivid – the film has not been glitzed, but rather returned to its ideal theatrical circumstances, with a crisp image, evocatively ’emotion-coded’ color tints, and a feeling of remarkable freshness. Flicker Alley also includes a wealth of substantive additional features about Murnau and the principal talent, the film’s history (including its landmark special effects), and how this restoration was achieved. Don’t miss “Invitation To Phantom,” the fascinating 15-minute documentary, by UCLA film historian Janet Bergstrom, which examines both the film’s production history and artistry; she includes demonstrations, using designer Hermann Warm’s own miniature-scale models, of the major special effects scenes.

Early cinema was anything but “primitive,” and most of the pictures were neither silent (musical accompaniment ranged from a lone piano or organ to a full symphony orchestra for major urban engagements) nor in black and white. This release of Phantom shows us the period at its best. Acclaimed film composer Robert Israel has written a mesmerizing new orchestral score for the film, which only adds to its power. His music captures both the romance and neurosis, as best heard in the main-theme waltz, with its hint of those in Richard Strauss’s lush 1911 opera Der Rosenkavalier. (The “Phantom Waltz” is also heard at the DVD’s main menu; I’ve been humming it for two weeks now – uh oh!). Early films like this were often color-tinted, in a variety of hues, to match the emotion of scenes – although you’d never know it from the deteriorated, or cheap, prints circulating the past 75 years. Now, for the first time since its release, Phantom’s tints again – lustrously – match Murnau’s intentions. You could not ask for a better illustration (pun intended) of color tinting’s impact than the haunting close-up of Veronika, as conjured up by Lorenz, used on the DVD’s cover. Imagine this iconic image in straight black and white: No thanks! Only with that ethereal yet slightly menacing blue can you feel the emotional – and thematic – importance of color, which has been carefully restored for this release. If only all DVDs were produced with this much dedication.

  • New speed-corrected NTSC film transfer, restored with original tints, in the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1
  • New orchestral score by renowned silent film composer Robert Israel
  • New English-language edition of the film prepared in collaboration with the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation, Wiesbaden, Germany
  • “Invitation To Phantom” – examines the artistry and production history of the film by UCLA film historian Janet Bergstrom
  • “The Colors of Phantom” – film restoration experts Luciano Berriatúa and Camille Blot-Wellens discuss their process for color tint identification and restoration in a 12-page booklet essay
  • Cast and Crew Biographies – over 80 pages of biographical information and unique photographs of the major performers and technicians involved with the film
  • Special Documents Gallery – containing many rare and never-before-seen historical documents
  • $29.98 suggested retail
LGBTQ+ Cinema / Jim's Film Website
LGBTQ+ Cinema / Jim’s Film Website

Reviewed October 10, 2006 / Revised October 27, 2020

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