November 13, 2013 Leave a comment
- directed by F.W. Murnau
- starring Alfred Abel, Frida Richard, Aud Egede-Nissen, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Lya De Putti, Anton Edthofer
- A shiftless young man becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman and yearns to find her again.
Admittedly, I approached a film called Phantom directed by F.W. Murnau expecting material in the darker, more supernatural realm. Part of that may have been me projecting my desires as I did start it on Halloween, but also we’re dealing with a guy who in the same calendar year laid a foundation full of influences for all future horror to build on with Nosferatu, and to a much lesser extent The Haunted Castle.
There’s nothing ghoulish about Phantom. There are the superimposed ghostly images that are seen in a lot of the horror films of the time, but instead of haunting undead entities they are instead hallucinations, memories, and the representation of our main character’s worsening mental condition. The film delicately points out how an empty and unfulfilled existence can become a breeding ground for unhealthy fixations, destructive behavior, and an altogether dark path in life. It also has the distinction, despite its merits, of being the only film so far that I couldn’t finish. It took me three weeks to try and pick up the last half hour, but I was unable to keep my attention tethered to Lorenz’s downward spiral.
Lorenz’s reality—his home, family, and work life—is so shatteringly empty that he finds solace in near-constant daydreaming from the time he is knocked down by the woman in the chariot. There is a complete absence of joy, spirit, passion, and love in Alfred Abel’s brilliantly deadpan performance. It isn’t just Veronika and the accident he is hung up on, he’s haunted by a life that he knows is out there for himself, and not only can he not grasp it, but he cannot even visualize what it looks like. Murnau illustrates these longings and ambiguities in perfect dreamlike fashion.
This is not an engrossing film as it unspools itself at a measured pace with little action and few major plot-shifting scenes to propel it forward. I feel like it might have been an experiment on Murnau’s part to see just how much he could convey without actually putting it on screen, a new theory that took shape in these years and an alternate path forward jutting out from the overly showy early years of silent cinema. And so we have a film that relies much more on the abstract internal struggles of Lorenz than it does his actions. The heavy lifting for that task certainly fell on the shoulders of Alfred Abel and, though he doesn’t strike me as a worthy leading man, he did muster up enough conviction to not be accountable for whatever tedium was occurring. Lorenz’s downfall is something we realize is happening quite clearly all while Murnau’s direction and Abel’s performance remain steady and peaceful as if it weren’t. As if the entire story was happening in another dimension with the real world full of consequences continuing on somewhere unseen.
I don’t need to balance out my dislike of this film by pointing out Murnau’s standing as perhaps the greatest of silent film directors, but I’m tempted to nonetheless. Before Phantom there was Nosferatu to love and there are at least five titles of his to look forward to up until 1931. There was some great stuff in Phantom and as a quiet experiment the film may have given Murnau a new sense of what the boundaries of film were. There was plenty of evidence up until 1922 showing how big you can go and how the limits on the high-end were only in the makers’ imaginations. Here we see how scarce it can get. In the end, an end that I never quite arrived at, I did enjoy the look of the film, the tone, and the dreamy pace of it all, but it was an absence of interesting story that took me out of it for good.