For the last movie I review on this site in 2022, I decided to go with an example of German Expressionism in a non-supernatural-horror setting, created by Expressionist master Friedrich Murnau. It also turned out to be an excellent opportunity to look at some of what was going on in the world about one century ago and how it affected film making.
“Phantom” begins by showing us the author, Gerhart Hauptmann, carrying a book on a rustic road and looking into the camera. Hauptmann was one of the foremost champions of “Naturalism” – a pre-Expressionist literary and theatrical movement that favored realistic dialogue and embraced scientific theory and social commentary. He’d been writing since the 19th Century, and appears here as an elder, but still fit, scholarly type with receding hairline and tweed jacket. The credits resume after this brief interlude and the film proper gets going again.
“Act I” begins by establishing a quiet house in the country, then showing us the man who lives there and his wife. The man (Alfred Abel) is staring out the window in a seeming reverie when the wife (Lil Dagover) comes in carrying a fine, hand-bound journal. She encourages him to purge himself of painful memories by writing the story of his past in the journal, bound by her father, and he sits to begin writing, informing us by way of an intertitle that he is Lorenz Lubota, a former convict, and then the real movie begins in the form of a flashback. We see Lorenz in much poorer surroundings, the small apartment flat he had shared with his mother (Frida Richard), brother Hugo (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), and sister Melanie (Aud Egede-Nilsson). The darkness of the house forebodes the domestic situation – Lorenz’s mother disapproves the wayward life of her daughter Melanie as well as the miserly ways of her sister, “Aunt Schwabe” (Grete Berger) who Lorenz works for after hours helping with her accounts. As the men leave in morning, Lorenz for his job as City Clerk and Hugo for art school, Melanie hangs her head in shame over the breakfast table, portending the end of this cozy, if uncomfortable, family unit.
On his way to work, Lorenz dawdles over books he’d like to buy but can’t afford, and he stops in to see the bookbinder mentioned above and his daughter, Marie Starke. Marie is in love with Lorenz but doesn’t say so to him. He, however, is excited to show Mr. Starke the poetry he has written. While he is out, the final break comes between Melanie and mother, when the old woman starts going through the girl’s underthings and implies that she is working as a prostitute and Melanie pulls out an old suitcase and packs to go. In another scene, we see the cluttered workspace where Lorenz is late again, and his supervisor mutters about how he never is on time and his work is always late. Lorenz is late because he’s buying another book from a street vendor. When he finally tears himself away and walks on, he is struck from behind by a cart with two white horses, driven by a beautiful rich young girl (Lya De Putti). Momentarily stunned, he wakes up awestruck to find her kneeling over him. He forgets all thought of work and leaves his hat at the scene of the accident, running through the streets to follow her to her home. She lives in a large villa and one of the servants angrily turns him out when he steps into the courtyard.
“Act II” begins with Marie and her father reading Lorenz’s poems. They are both quite taken with them, and Herr Starke makes a point of pushing them on the first publisher who walks in the door. Meanwhile, Lorenz, who has quite forgotten about work stumbles past in a daze, causing Marie to realize that his mind is on something (or someone) other than her. He experiences an hallucination of running through the streets of a distorted city, pursuing the madly driven carriage with the girl aboard. He stops at his home and his mother assumes his distracted condition is on account of Melanie, but he insists on going out again, finally stopping at the bookbinders and getting their news. The old man is very congratulatory, telling him he is a genius and that he will be honored by the City Hall, inducing another vision, this time of himself being handed flowers and kissed by the girl in a ceremony that might be a wedding. Suddenly hopeful, he runs out of their shop to head back to her neighborhood.
Once there, Lorenz asks a small child for the girl’s name – Veronika – and gives her a small coin in thanks. The child feels it isn’t enough and asks for another, but it is all he has. Now, before her very door, he becomes aware of his impecunious position and shabby clothes, and instead of knocking, he goes to the shop of Aunt Schwabe, who is turning away some poor soul who hocked his possessions with her and cannot afford to pay. She introduces him to Wigottschinski (Anton Edthofer), seemingly a kind of gigolo who hangs around her shop and makes rude comments behind her back. Lorenz tells them about his poetry getting published, and Schwabe is very excited to hear that he’ll soon be famous. He says he’d be embarrassed to meet a publisher in his shabby suit, so she loans him some money to buy new clothes. Now Wigottschinski is interested – he’s never seen “the old bag” fork over money so easily. He insists on coming along for the shopping trip.
This is intercut with Starke meeting again with the publisher who says the poems are “very nice, but not publishing material,” so the audience sees Lorenz start digging his hole just at the same time that we learn that he won’t be coming into any large amount of money. Remember, he’s already missed a day of work by stumbling around in a daze all day. To make matter worse, once he’s decked out in his new finery, Wigottschinski suggests blowing the leftover cash by getting a drink to celebrate. They walk into a fancy cabaret-style bar, and who should be sitting at the next table but Melanie, with her rich escort and some friends. When she sees Lorenz, the sugar daddy acts offended that she notices another man, and she becomes furious at his possessiveness, leading to a fight in which both parties end up ejected. On the trip home, Wigottschinski mentions casually that Veronika is engaged, which puts Lorenz into a new depression. He jumps out of the cab in front of her house, raising such a ruckus that a policeman tells them to move on and takes down their particulars. They get him home to mother, who puts him to bed. Wigottschinski leers at Melanie, and she winces, then agrees to go home with him rather than face her mother.
The next day comes the reckoning, as a representative from Lorenz’s work comes to inquire why he is absent without leave. His mother explains that he is ill, but he stumbles out of bed and rages at the man when he brings up the fact that he has been seen twice at the Harlan house behaving suspiciously. His co-worker leaves with an ominous threat, but he decides the one way to put things to rights is to visit the Harlans and ask for their daughter’s hand. This goes as badly as one would expect, but Herr Harlan is no fool – he fobs Lorenz off with a promise that they can discuss his daughter “in a year or so,” perhaps after Lorenz has made a success of himself. Meanwhile we see that Melanie and Wigottschinski are living together in sin, and that he is trying to find out how he can use Lorenz to get at Schwabe’s money.
Lorenz leaves the fine surroundings of the Harlan home and momentarily a vision of his aged mother in their shabby home flashes before him. He decides rather to celebrate his “victory” over the Harlans and calls a cab and asks to be taken to the best tavern in Breslau. This turns out to be a fancy restaurant, where the waiter shows him to a table next to a mother and daughter who are dining out. To Lorenz’s shock, the daughter looks exactly like Veronika, apart from having curly rather than straight hair (Lya De Putti, in a second role). He introduces himself and pursues them out the door. The mother, seeing how finely Lorenz is dressed, and that he readily throws cash around to buy champagne he doesn’t bother to drink, raises no objection. We see Lorenz alone with the girl, continuing to imaging chasing the phantom of Veronika, but making love to her doppelganger. Her mother accepts his payment for the afternoon as he leaves.
Lorenz isn’t home when the announcement comes through the officious co-worker that he’s lost his job but he already suspects, and he goes to Wigottschinski to ask about money, finding his sister living there with him. Wigottschinski says the only solution is to go to Schwabe and double down on his pretense of being on the verge of fortune through his poetry, and Lorenz reluctantly agrees, the face of the doppelganger coming to him in a vision as he contemplates the promised cash. Aunt Schwabe coughs up the money, but soon becomes concerned and pays a call on her sister, Lorenz’s mother, who seems to be in a terrible state, crouched over some document. After chastising her a bit, she picks up the paper and learns that Lorenz has been discharged as city clerk, then demands that he come to her house immediately to explain himself. Meanwhile, Lorenz and Wigottschinski throw their money away on themselves and on the women they desire. Lorenz has a momentary flash of generosity and purchases some fabric for his mother while shopping with the Doppelganger, and for that reason returns home for the first time in days.
Mother is in despair, and when he gives her the bolt of fabric she asks if he bought it with Aunt Schwabe’s money, and he knows that the jig is up. He goes to Schwabe, who gives him a good dressing-down, then threatens to go to the police if he doesn’t pay back the money within three days. Lorenz goes to where Wigottschinski and Melanie live; they are both nursing hangovers (she with a damp towel, he with the hair-of-the-dog), and tells them he wants to confess his crimes. Wigottschinski convinces him the only way out is to steal the rest of Aunt Schwabe’s money. Lorenz has another vision of a phantom carriage knocking him down in the street and finds himself again at Veronika’s door. He runs back to the Doppelganger and we see a whirlwind montage of the two of them spending money like wild and apparently descending into the pit.
Meanwhile, Hugo and Marie are tending to Mrs. Lubota, whose distress has finally made her ill with worry. When Lorenz returns to her, Marie warns him that any excitement could be fatal to her, so he does not confess his crime or ask for help. Instead, he asks Marie what she would do if he were revealed as a scoundrel, but innocent Marie cannot even envisage such an eventuality. Lorenz gives up and tries once more to beg Aunt Schwabe for more money, but she insists that he turn over his poet’s royalties to her and he is again caught in his own web of lies. His attempt to come clean results in another tirade of threats and recriminations from Aunt Schwabe, who plans to go to the police, and now Lorenz has no choice but to accede to the theft planned by Wigottschinski. Said theft seems to be going well enough at first, but when a lost telegraph boy rings the bell in the middle of the night to get directions, Aunt Schwabe awakes to find her home invaded and her possessions endangered. She fights with Wigottschinski, who kills her, and soon the police arrive. Lorenz offers no resistance to his arrest.
This brings us back to the wraparound story in which Lorenz attempts to purge his sense of guilt and the ongoing haunting of Veronika from his soul. He has served his prison sentence and taken on a new life. He is with Marie Starke and her father, and his life seems to be in order now.
For me, there is a phantom of another sort hanging over this movie, the specter of the German inflation, which was already underway in late 1922, and would get much worse in 1923. We see this in the scenes in which money is used – the characters flash large wads of bills frequently, and of course they are supposed to be swindling quite a bit of money from Aunt Schwabe, but the amount Lorenz throws down for a single bottle of champagne is far more than the handful of coins we would expect in the story’s 1900 setting. The liner notes to my DVD of this movie say it had a “much higher budget” than Nosferatu or The Haunted Castle, but was that money actually able to go as far? It seems to me that Murnau was forced to cut a lot of corners, particularly in terms of special effects. The documentary “Invitation to Phantom” confirms that the producer, Erich Pommer, imposed new “efficiencies” on production that Murnau had not faced before, due to the economic situation. Murnau does his best with limited material, but this movie is Expressionist, not so much in appearance, but in the fact that the action of the film is filtered through the subjective and slightly insane perceptions of Lorenz.
A number of elements from the novel are not represented, perhaps most strikingly the fact that Melitta, the Doppelganger, is presumed to resemble Veronika only in Lorenz’s mind, not in reality. Veronika really is a young, virginal girl (the novel says only thirteen when Lorenz first sees her), while Melitta is several years older, but childlike in her eroticism. By using the same actress for both parts, Murnau makes this subjective situation apparently objective, at any rate makes the audience experience it as real, and there is no effort to undermine this impression by showing us how she appears to anyone else, or even through the clumsy expedient of an intertitle. The novel does not have Lorenz run down by Veronika in a carriage, either. Lorenz’s first sighting of her is in front of the old whipping-post in the Breslau square, and the symbolism of that location informs the torments he experiences over her. One thing that is true in both versions is that Lorenz seems to lose his mind and do utterly self-destructive things in the pursuit of this doomed love, though in the novel Hauptmann frequently comments on this from the perspective of the older, penitent Lorenz who narrates the story.
Hauptmann was one of the most powerfully influential literary figures at the time (we still used his works in German language classes when I was in grad school), and it must have been no small thing for a young director like Murnau to get to adapt one of his stories. Interestingly, “Phantom” had not been printed in book form when the movie came out, only serialized in the Berliner Illustrite Zeitung, and even audiences who read it there had only read the conclusion a few months before the movie came out. Today, it’s hard to imagine a film adaptation of anything besides a Marvel comic book happening so fast. I will admit that this movie took me a couple of viewings to really get into, and it probably helped that I read the novel as well. Lorenz was so frustratingly stupid so much of the time! But, that seems to have been a part of the point, a kind of cautionary tale against being too innocent and naïve, and maybe against letting your passions rule, at a time in Germany when people were beginning to give in to emotional responses to circumstances that needed sober rational consideration.
Director: Friedrich W. Murnau
Camera: Axel Graatkjaer, Theophan Ouchakoff
Starring: Alfred Abel, Lya De Putti, Frida Richard, Hans Heinrich von Twardowksi, Aud Egede-Nilsson, Grete Berger, Lil Dagover, Anton Edthofer
Run Time: 1 Hr, 59 Min
You can watch it for free: here.