The Mania of Lust: On F.W. Murnau’s Phantoms

PHANTOM (1922) — F.W. Murnau

Note: This is the hundred-and-nineteenth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1922 film, PHANTOM, directed by F.W. Murnau.

I’m returning to the incomparable dreamlike world(s) of F.W. Murnau just one week after linking NOSFERATU (1922) to SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927), and sorry not sorry, there’s going to be a whole lot more of that. Because PHANTOM, often listed as a “lesser” Murnau work (well, sure, it’s not his best), is just as thematically and visually consistent as his other films, albeit operating at a lower emotional, narrative, and dramatic stake.

THE LAST LAUGH (1924) — F.W. Murnau

I always turn to the word “ethereal” when writing about Murnau, and I’m sure there are better words to describe his work. But it so succinctly sums up his inimitable style, brought to the fore by his cinematographers like Fritz Arno Wagner, Karl Freund, Charles Rosher, and Karl Struss. The through line for these collaborators, though, is a blurred reality, bringing a cool, collected, almost distant eye to an authentic, heightened world existing in a time and space apart from our own, even if it’s ostensibly set in a present.

The coolness, the collection, the distance is crucial to a common theme running through Murnau’s work: manic lust. Perhaps desire is at the heart of most human stories, and therefore most films, but Murnau’s brand of yearning is twisted into something perverse before being alleviated by some superior moral force. In NOSFERATU, it’s the titular vampire’s lust for human blood that gives way to the heavenly light that Ellen Hutter rains down upon him, destroying him. In SUNRISE, it’s the The Man’s lust for The Woman from the City that is alleviated by his pure, innocent wife. In THE LAST LAUGH (1924), it’s the hotel doorman’s lust for position and status that gives way to…well, originally, Murnau subverted this theme by seeing the ruination of the doorman, but added an epilogue to reward the karmic goodness of the man. You get the picture.

The stark frankness of the photography of Murnau’s work allows the room for the mania to roam. It’s most apparent in PHANTOM (photographed by Axel Graatkjaer and Theophan Ouchakoff), often criticized as an exercise in “melodrama.” But in its naming convention and somewhat moralizing tale, PHANTOM serves as a kind of centerpiece and important transition point into the remarkable run of releases by the director. A “phantom” is always at the heart of Murnau’s protagonists’ desire, something ambiguous and not quite real (well, except for Nosferatu’s human blood cravings).

In this film, it’s represented by a noblewoman (played by Lya de Putti) who is obsessed over by Alfred Abel’s Lorenz, a lowly city clerk and aspiring poet. His obsession takes him into the arms of a “gold digging” doppelganger (also played by de Putti), financial ruin, and ultimately, jail. It is made clear over and over that the high class lady is not worth Lorenz’s infatuation, especially to the point of stealing from family (his pawnbroker aunt) and acting as, essentially, a murder accomplice. Lorenz’s phantom is dispersed by his original loves, literature and sweetheart Marie, played by a favorite of mine, Lil Dagover. The film ends with Lorenz writing his life story in the sunbeams streaming through his modest home’s window, when he is joined by Marie. It’s a resolved, quiet moment after the despair and grim devolution of Lorenz and those around him.

Full film

It’s true that PHANTOM runs a bit long at just about two hours. It’s true that the acting is a bit overstated, especially in the midst of the performances in Murnau’s other films and even PHANTOM’s own understated yet sharp cinematography. But the movie’s connection to the irrational wants and needs of humans is potent and its moments of relief so compelling, whether it’s a peak of Lorenz’s joy and the subsequent precipitation of another complication or the final resolution. PHANTOM’s power is somewhat augmented by its place in the filmography of one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers, but then, it’s impossible to totally divorce context from a viewing experience. And PHANTOM is capable of infiltrating your mind like most any other Murnau film, with images and their connection to universal truths floating into your mind’s eye, like an overhead shot of Lorenz and Mellitta (the doppelganger) in a seedy club, or the blue tinted infinity fronted by Mellitta’s portrait.

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