F. W. Murnau directed four films in 1922, as well as spending time in hospital. These two were the second and fourth films. Nosferatu made Murnau famous outside Germany and has remained in circulation for 100 years with its centenary celebrated this year. It has the advantage of being based on a popular novel known the world over, even if the names and aspects of the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula have been changed. Phantom is much less well-known outside Germany and has only recently been restored to something like its original form. Yet Phantom is in some ways the ‘bigger’ production, certainly in length, running originally at 125 minutes. These two films followed Schloß Vogelöd (1921), a crime melodrama that includes a dream sequence and uses of landscape that were developed in Nosferatu and Phantom. All three films have been grouped by some critics/commentators as ‘horror’, sometimes with the addition of Faust from 1926. While Nosferatu is of great importance in the development of horror as a genre, I’m not sure it helps to label the other films in this way. Murnau also made two earlier films, an adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus, 1920) and Satanas (1919), both of which might be classified as horror, but both have been lost so it is impossible to comment on them now.
Nosferatu is a gothic horror film and follows the now-familiar vampire narrative – or more correctly, establishes most of the genre conventions of the modern vampire film. I’m struck now as to how much Gustav von Wangenheim (as Hutter, the Jonathan Harker character) reminds me of Roman Polanski in his own vampire picture The Fearless Vampire Killers (UK-US 1967). That film is a comedy spoof and to some extent Hutter in Murnau’s film is presented as a slightly comic character (again such comic moments happen in other Murnau films). Nosferatu has somehow become bracketed with Das Kabinett des Dr. Calagari (1919), the film most clearly identified as an example of German Expressionist Cinema. I’m not going to attempt to describe or define expressionist cinema here, only to argue that if Nosferatu is ‘expressionist’, the effect is achieved in a different way from Calagari. Instead of artificially creating distorted sets to convey the sense of ‘a world disturbed’, Murnau finds locations – buildings and landscapes that he ‘makes strange’ in a variety of ways – see the image above. The camera ‘effects’ – printing ‘negative’ images and speeding up a sequence – are basic but they work well. The film is essentially realist rather than expressionist, yet when Count Orlock (Max Schreck) arrives in the fictional coastal city of Wisborg he is able to appear and disappear and pass through walls with ease, via double exposure. It would appear that the most iconic image of the film – Orlock’s distorted shadow on the wall as he seeks out Hutter’s wife – was an afterthought by Murnau and his cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner and this is what mostly attracts the ‘expressionist’ tag. The film helped to make Murnau’s reputation but in a sense it hampered critical discussion of other films that were bracketed with it and gave the false impression that Murnau was primarily a horror director as well as an expressionist director.
Phantom is a case in point. The title suggests a ghost story or at least a film about something illusory and potentially worrying. In fact it’s a family melodrama mixed with a moral tale about a man who is led astray by his own imagination – and by a suggestion, from someone he respects, that he may have a talent. This will compound his self-delusion. The film also involves a doppelgänger – a character has a double whose existence will cause trouble or disturbance. Alfred Abel plays the lead character Lorenz Lubota, a small town’s clerk who one day is told by the father of Marie the young woman who loves him (though he doesn’t seem to realise it) that he has real talent as a poet and that he should be published. Wandering off in a daze he is knocked down by a horse and trap and when he comes round he is being nursed by a beautiful young woman. When he fully comes to his senses she is gone, but he is smitten and runs after her trap, but fails to catch her. The possibility of fame goes to his head and he is persuaded that he needs a new suit befitting a distinguished poet. He borrows money and becomes involved with a man who is trying to steal from the same source of the money – Lorenz’s own aunt. From here on in, Lorenz is on a downward spiral, much to the distress of his mother. There is quite a bit more to the plot, involving Lorenz’s wayward sister and the doppelgänger, a ‘vamp’ who is the double of the middle-class young woman Lorenz seeks to find. But I think there are a couple of problems that stopped me enjoying the film as much as I expected to.
Firstly, the casting of Abel just doesn’t work for me. He is a fine actor and I very much enjoyed his role in Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs (Germany 1924) but he seems too old for the part here. In 1922 he was in his early forties and in the close-ups on the Blu-ray of the film he certainly looks it. This is my problem of an obsession with realism I guess, but I think the narrative places him as at least ten years younger. I also have problems with the narrative ‘framing device’. The film begins with an introduction by Gerhart Hauptmann, the Nobel Prizewinning writer of the original short novel which was being serialised in Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung while the film was being made. The framing device shows us that Lorenz is now married to Marie (Lil Dagover) and we see him begin to start writing his memoir in a pleasant sunlit room. The main part of the film then becomes a long flashback to the story of his downfall and redemption. This device is actually there in the short novel and I believe it was quite common in German silent cinema. It’s function is presumably to reassure the audience that Lorenz will be redeemed and will marry Marie, but it rather undermines the tragedy of what might happen to Lorenz. (The novel was translated and published in the US in 1922 and is available here.)
In the booklet accompanying the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray collection of ‘Early Murnau’, Janet Bergstrom makes the important point that in 1922-3 the crisis in the German economy meant that hyper-inflation was a major concern and that both Phantom and Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs were concerned with fears about money, but whereas the latter film worked as a comedy, Phantom is, for Lorenz, more like a nightmare. Lorenz is so infatuated with his first sighting of Veronika, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy storekeeper, that when he becomes entangled with the gold-digger Mellitta (both parts played by Lya De Putti) the accident that brought him his glimpse of Veronika begins to haunt him. Effects similar to those in Nosferatu have the horse and carriage chasing him through the streets. Phantom is indeed an expressionist film in this sense and Lorenz’s emotional breakdown mirrors that of other characters in films of the period. A new effect in this film (i.e. compared to Nosferatu) shows a row of buildings tilting over as if to crush Lorenz – something which also appears, with all the plasticity of modern CGI, in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (US 2010). But Murnau got their first.
My impression is that whereas in all the other Murnau films I’ve seen, the different genre elements all fit together seamlessly, in Phantom the overall narrative feels more disjointed. Frida Richard’s performance seems much more heavily marked by the emphatic gestures of melodrama acting of the period whereas other players use a more naturalistic acting mode. I don’t want to overemphasise my disappointment with Phantom. It is an ambitious film I think and there is a sequence towards the end of the film that mirrors some scenes in Nosferatu and in Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs in which Lorenz enters a large building and doors open for him, one after another, seemingly of their own accord. It’s these small elements of the uncanny that I’m beginning to notice across Murnau’s films. The film was a box office success, largely because of the popularity of Hauptmann’s novel, I think.
The collaborators on this film include Thea von Harbou as the writer, Robert Israel as the music composer (and the score is used on the restored print for the Blu-ray) and Hermann Warm as production designer. Warm also worked on Calagari and Murnau’s earlier Schloß Vogelöd. The distinguished Danish cinematographer Axel Graatkjær shared duties with the Russian, Theophan Ouchakoff, about whom little is known. This does however, indicate how Berlin was becoming a centre for creative personnel from across Europe. I don’t think Murnau worked with either Graatkjær or Ouchakoff on any other films, but it does seem that Murnau’s films have a strong visual sense whoever is responsible for the camerawork.
The trailer for Nosferatu‘s Centenary:
And a clip from the restored print of Phantom in which Lorenz is led astray by the doppelgänger Mellitta: