Scene of Phantom (1922) by F. W. Murnau

The Karlsruhe Silent Film Festival (14-18 March 2018), arrived at its 16th edition, will start today with a focus on Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and the Cinema of the Twenties (to conclude the program of the previous edition). This Festival is one of the few devoted only to “Stummfilme” and includes a program of about 15 movies organized around different thematics.
One of the movies is a gem created in 1922 precisely by Murnau, Phantom. Generally speaking, it is not one of the most well-known masterpieces directed by the German director, such as Nosferatu (1922 as well), Der letzte Mann (1924) or Tartuffe (1925). It should definitely be included in the top list, though. Béla Balázs has defined this movie an “objectified lyric”, while Leonard Maltin gave it almost maximum rank saying that it is an authentic “poetic psychodrama”. Let’s see why.

Watching Phantom, the audience enters into a maze, a mental and material labyrinth, starting from the “structures” of the movie: during these 2 hours, Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel) passes through many gates, arcs or portals, elements which easily recall animated movies (Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away) as well as sci-fi (2001, Star Trek)… Phantom is inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel (1888) and was considered lost till few years ago; in 2002 it was restored by L’Immagine Ritrovata (Bologna) and was first republished in 2006 using old films found in Berlin and in Chile. Murnau directed it in the Studios Neubabelsberg (Berlin) during the era of German expressionism, when monumentalism, distorted reality, disorienting perspectives and subjectivity were constantly involved by movies, often leading to tropes such as dreams and hallucinations.

This movie has actually two beginnings: one defines the current story we will follow and involves an empty notebook, ready to be filled by Lorenz’s life: his wife Marie suggested him so, to try to control and solve his troubles. The second starts with a sudden encounter, with a bump which leads us to a sort of second or multiple plot line: a flashback, a dream, a vision, …a phantom? We’ll never really know. For sure the two dimensions are mutually influenced. At the movie’s level, the second is produced by the first, while the first, in the fiction we are watching, can subsist only thanks to its past, the second.

Two realities and also two women or, better, two kinds of women: Marie, concrete and positive, who tries to help Lorenz to succeed in his writing career, but also to heal his pains. Then there’s the duo of Veronika and (or?) Melitta, who represent the dark, dreamy, surreal aspects of Lorenz’s existence. A dualism which recalls Hitchock’s Vertigo, in between reality, visions and never ending spirals. Here the spirals are mostly passages though, but the idea is the same: they’re symbolically used to let the protagonist (and us) to enter into the world of his hidden emotions, desires and dramas. Lorenz struggles to finish his work and live his life quietly, but something avoids him to reach his goals, something which comes from himself, in a sort of Baudelaire’s spleen or Seneca’s taedium vitae. He’s becoming a ghost himself, lost and vanishing.

The surrealism of the movie can be seen in shapes, colours, style and plot, but it is never total: the real, concrete dramas of daily life are always there, ready to remind Lorenz that he can’t escape, that he should take care of them instead of pursuing visions and illusions: his money are finishing, his friends are worried about him and his career seems in danger, as well as his mental health. The contrast between these multiple levels of “reality” is emphasized, which is also the power of the movie.

Will Lorenz “wake up”? Will a simple notebook and the act of writing help him to save his true existence, or will he get stuck in the realm of tricky mental illusions?

The answer on Sunday, at the 16th Stummfilm Festival Karlsruhe.

Maria Adorno