Phantom (Germany, 1922):

The title may suggest the supernatural, but the horror of this early F.W. Murnau drama remains, as in The Haunted Castle, strictly moral. The life of a bookish city clerk (Walter Abel) is turned inside out when he's almost run over by a chariot steered by honey-tressed fraulein Lya De Putti. Dazedly smitten, he becomes obsessed with her and, carrying the bogus promise of fame as a poet, begins splooging imaginary money, paving the path for lies, betrayal, and murder. The phantom here is an object of desire ultimately as unattainable as Bu˝uel's, reinforced by the recurring spectral image of the hero helplessly chasing Putti's coach -- one of the various expressionistic effects sprinkled throughout. (Elsewhere, the gabled buildings literally bear down on the guilty protagonist, while his barroom debauchery gets a stumbling subjective shot later exported, along with Putti, over to Variety.) Adapted by Thea von Harbou from Gerhart Hauptmann's novel, the film has little of Murnau's staggering expression of movement, though it fascinates, particularly in light of the same year's Nosferatu. Stripped off that film's sense of the macabre, the themes of sexuality and desire (both depicted as unhealthy, leading not to liberation but to degradation) are welled in the characters' own psyches rather than in the director's usual threatening outer force. As befits a hero bedeviled by split impulses, the movie abounds in doubles and opposites -- Abel's hard-toiling mom (Frida Richard) is echoed in his penny-pinching aunt (Grete Berger), while his elusive muse gets her own shadow image in a doppelganger tart (also played by Putti), against whom Lil Dagover's lovelorn girl-next-door offers a pure alternative. (Abel's vivacious party-girl sister, superbly played by Aud Egede Nissen, remains the most interesting character precisely because she is trapped between the warring elements of Murnau's universe.) With Anton Edthofer. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home