A surrealistic, dreamlike story of obsession

Phantom, released 13 November 1922, is one of eleven currently-known, fully-surviving films of the great director F.W. Murnau. A film which he wrote but didn’t direct also survives in full.

Like most of his other films, Phantom too is in the German Expressionist style. It has a lyrical, poetic, dreamlike, surrealistic quality. This isn’t a true horror story, but about a phantom in the mind. Sometimes our obsessions and inner phantoms can be more haunting than any supernatural thrills and chills.

At the urging of his wife Marie, ex-con Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel) begins writing an account of his past crimes and misdeeds, in the hopes of purging his soul of those painful memories. We then enter flashback mode.

Lorenz’s mother thinks he spends too much time with books when he can’t afford them, but he insists they provide him with a world he otherwise can’t experience. His mother also is furious at her other son Hugo for working with his pawnbroker aunt Schwabe, whose morals she highly disapproves of.

Marie’s father disapproves of her relationship with Lorenz, and derides Lorenz as too much of a dreamer. When Lorenz comes for a visit, he shows Marie’s father, Hr. Starke, some of his poems.

Frau Lubota gets into a fight with her daughter Melanie when she announces she’s going to work. Frau  Lubota suspects she’s a hooker, confronting her with silky garments she suspects were either ill-gotten gifts or paid for with ill-gotten money. In response, Melanie moves out.

While walking to work, Lorenz is knocked over by a horse-drawn carriage. Though he’s unhurt, he becomes obsessed with Veronika, the woman in the carriage.

At the start of Act II, Hr. Starke highly praises Lorenz’s poems, and tells Marie he’s a lot more talented than he gave him credit for. In fact, Hr. Starke thinks he’s a genius, and decides to back Lorenz’s writing career by getting him a mentor and making him an honorary citizen. Gone are the days when Lorenz was a lowly town clerk.

Meanwhile, Lorenz visits Schwabe to break the happy news, at the same time the publisher meets Hr. Starke. He doesn’t share Hr. Starke’s glowing opinion at all, and refuses to publish Lorenz.

Schwabe urges Lorenz to get a new suit to make an impression in society, and sends her assistant Wigottschinski out to help him with picking out the suit. Afterwards, they get a drink to celebrate.

At the club, Lorenz recognizes Melanie, who becomes Wigottschinski’s girlfriend. Lorenz also learns Veronika is engaged, and begins hanging around her house. His obsession is so great, he comes to speak to her parents and begs for Veronika’s hand.

Since he can’t have Veronika, be begins courting her dead ringer and blowing his wallet on gifts. All the while, he relives the accident. His obsession is so great, he begins skipping work and behaving very scandalously in other ways.

Wigottschinski, who’s been swindling Schwabe to keep up Lorenz’s illusion of making a lot of money, can’t keep up his scheme forever. Schwabe gets wise to him, and demands a full payback in three days. If not, she’ll call the cops.

This sets even more trouble in motion, all while Lorenz continues to obsess over his phantom woman hitting him with her carriage.

While this film is beautifully-shot (including many tinted frames), with a lovely dreamlike mood and wonderful visuals, this isn’t a film I’d recommend as an ideal first silent. It’s definitely nowhere near the worst silent I’ve ever seen (that would probably be a toss-up between Leaves from Satan’s Book and Eyes of the Mummy Ma), but it’s not the type I see making enthusiastic converts.

It’s like a modern art house or indie film. There’s an obvious, eager audience, but one has to already be a big fan of that style to want to watch it.

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Old dark house meets German Expressionism

Together with The Bat and The MonsterThe Cat and the Canary is one of the Big Three old dark house plays which were made into films during the silent era. Old dark house stories feature people stuck overnight in a strange, creepy, old house. Frequently, the reason for the gathering is the reading of an old eccentric’s will, and there’s at least one murder or mysterious disappearance.

The play was written by John Willard in 1921, and premièred 7 February 1922 on Broadway. It ran for 349 performances, till 2 December, and returned for 40 performances from 23 April–26 May 1923.

The first film adaptation premièred 9 September 1927 by New York’s Colony Theatre. In addition to films by the same name in 1939 (starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard) and 1979, 0ther filmed versions include The Cat Creeps (1930, lost); La Voluntad del Muerto (1930); and Katten och Kanariefågeln (1961 Swedish TV movie).

Carl Laemmle, the German-born head of Universal Pictures, invited German Expressionist director Paul Leni to do the honors for The Cat and the Canary after seeing his impressive mixing of comedy and playfulness with the grotesque in Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) (1924). Laemmle also wanted to capitalize upon the Gothic horror film trend.

Leni provided a masterful mixing of German Expressionism and comedy, tailoring that style to American audiences. A hand wiping away cobwebs to reveal the opening credits is just the beginning. Leni also created the trademark Expressionist mood through shadows, lighting, and camera angles.

The film was very financially successful, and has received mostly positive reviews both then and now.

Millionaire Cyrus West, who lives in a decaying old mansion over the Hudson, has been driven crazy by his greedy relatives. He feels like a canary surrounded by cats. To keep them away from his money for as long as possible, he locks his last will and testament in a safe, with instructions to be read on his 20th Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

If and only if the conditions of the will can’t be fulfilled, a second note is to be opened.

Cyrus’s lawyer, Roger Crosby (veteran character actor Tully Marshall), discovers a live moth and the second will when he opens the safe. He asks caretaker Mammy Pleasant who else has been in the house, but she insists she’s been alone for twenty years. Crosby is also the only one who knows the safe’s combination.

As midnight approaches, the relatives start arriving—his nephews Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Harry Blythe, and Charles Wilder; his sister Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch); and his nieces Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor) and Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). Susan is convinced Annabelle is crazy, but Paul has a big crush on her.

Because Cyrus hated his family so much, he’s given his fortune to Annabelle, his most distant relative. However, before she can inherit anything, she has to be judged sane by a doctor named in the will, who’s due to pay a visit that night. If she doesn’t pass muster, the money goes to the person named in the second will.

Cyrus’s painting falls off the wall, which is interpreted as a very bad omen. Now everyone is even more eager to get out of there, as much as they all want a piece of the fortune. However, they’re prevented from leaving when a guard enters and announces he’s looking for an escaped lunatic, “who thinks he’s a cat, and tears his victims like they were canaries!”

No one wants to sleep alone after this.

Crosby pulls Annabelle aside to read the alternate will, so she’ll know who might be trying to get between her and the inheritance. Before he can read the name, a claw-like hand emerges from a secret panel and absconds with him. When Annabelle tells the others, they all think she’s crazy, except the smitten Paul.

In Cyrus’s room, Annabelle reads a third note, which has instructions for finding the West diamonds. She’s delighted to discover a beautiful diamond necklace, but while she’s sleeping, the clawed hand snatches it. Once again, no one believes her but Paul.

The mysterious, creepy events don’t stop there.

Of the Big Three old dark house films of the Twenties, I like this one best. I’d highly recommend it if you’re a fan of classic horror.

Metropolis at 90, Part IV (Home media and restorations)

The U.S. copyright for Metropolis expired in 1953, which created a veritable bonanza of film and, later, VHS versions. As with many public domain films (both silent and sound), the quality varied wildly. I’ve seen some DVD and VHS versions with terrible, fuzzy images, a logo in the bottom corner, a monotonous, wheezing organ, and/or a soundtrack which is extremely mismatched to the action (e.g., cheerful music as a murder is being committed).

In 1996, the U.S. copyright was restored. There was some legal wrangling disputing it, but the decision was upheld in 2012. However, the film and its images remain copyrighted both in its native Germany and the rest of the European Union. This copyright will remain in effect until the end of 2046, 70 years after director Fritz Lang’s death.

The version I was introduced to circa 1991 or 1992 may have been Giorgio Moroder’s well-known 1984 restoration and edit, though after so many years, I can’t remember the exact details. All I remember is that I was so captivated by this film, however truncated, and no matter what soundtrack. More on that in my concluding Part V.

This 1984 version ran 83 minutes, and had new special effects, a popular music soundtrack in lieu of the traditional instrumentation accompanying silents, tinting, and replacement of the intertitles with subtitles. Though this version was nominated for two Raspberry Awards, Worst Musical Score and Worst Original Song (“Love Kills,” by Freddie Mercury as a solo artist), it was nevertheless the first real restoration.

Decide for yourself!

In 1986, German film historian and preservationist Enno Patalas began the most painstaking process of properly restoring the film. His version was the most complete, accurate restoration to date, and was based upon the original score and script. He worked from a copy in the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps this, and not the Moroder version, was my first exposure to the film.

After 1986, previously lost and unknown parts began showing up in archives and museums all around the world. With all this great new material with which to work, the awesome Kino was able to release an even better restoration on DVD in 2002. It ran 118 minutes, much closer to the original 153.

On 1 July 2008, film experts in Berlin had some very wonderful news to announce. A 16 mm reduction negative of the original cut had been found in the archives of Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. This copy had been circulating since 1928, going from a film distributor, to a private collector, to an art foundation, and finally to the museum.

Not only that, but in 2005, Australian historian and politician Michael Organ had looked at a print in the National Film Archive of New Zealand, and found it to have scenes missing from other prints. When he went to compare it against the 2008 discovery, he found the New Zealand print had eleven scenes missing from the Argentinian print, and some snippets used to restore damaged sections of the Argentinian print.

Being nitrate, the film was in poor condition and needed some very delicate repair operations. Sadly, there were still two short scenes damaged beyond repair—a fight between Rotwang and Frederson, and a monk preaching. New intertitles were inserted to describe the missing scenes.

This restoration made its début in 2010, and considerably lengthened the film and gave the story much deeper complexity. It runs 147 minutes, probably the closest we’ll ever get to the original, barring another miraculous rediscovery.

While many silents are lost forever, it’s such a beautiful blessing and miracle we’ve found as many as we have over the years. That’s why I hold out hope for films like Theda Bara’s Cleopatra (1917) and Hats Off (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s only remaining lost film.

Metropolis at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Reports on the audience reception by the début of Metropolis are mixed. Some sources say the audience applauded the most impression scenes (including a film critic), while other sources claim muted applause was commingled with boos and hisses. Critical reception was also mixed, with some critics praising the technical merits while panning the actual story. H.G. Wells wrote a New York Times review ripping it apart.

One of the film’s fans was Joseph Goebbels. Many other Nazis also loved it, which possibly led to director Fritz Lang later expressing negative opinions about it. It’s debatable how much of this is urban legend vs. historical fact, but the story goes that Goebbels, in 1933, offered Lang the most prestigious position as head of production at UFA, Universum Film AG.

Lang claimed he left Germany that very evening, though he really left four months later, and made several visits home after moving to France. Whatever the truth, it’s a good thing he left, since his mother was born Jewish, which made him “half-Jewish” under Nazi racial laws in spite of his Catholic faith. The great scientist Niels Bohr was in the same boat in Denmark, and was among the people smuggled to Sweden.

The 153-minute film was drastically shortened for the U.S. and U.K. audience, with different title cards and some changed names. All references to Freder’s deceased mother Hel were also removed, since her name was too close to the word Hell. I wonder if they knew about the Old Norse mythological figure Hel (infamous trickster Loki’s daughter), who presides over an underworld location of the same name.

With the references to Hel gone, mad scientist Rotwang’s original impetus for creating his robot was gone. While it’s not a huge plot point, it’s pretty important as backstory and motivation.

The English-language cut ran 115 minutes, the product of playwright Channing Pollock. A 115-minute version also was distributed in Germany later in 1927. In 1936, a further shortened version came out in Germany, only 91 minutes. (See more on run times and projection speeds.)

In the decades since, Metropolis has come to have a much greater reputation, and can now be seen at a length much closer to the original. (More about that in Part IV.) It routinely ranks highly on those incessant “best-of” lists, both for the silent era and for all time.

The film has been referenced in popular culture many times over the years. Notable homages include:

C-3PO of Star Wars was directly inspired by the Maschinenmensch, Rotwang’s robot.

Madonna’s classic 1989 music video for “Express Yourself” has numerous depictions of scenes from the film. It also features an epigraph almost identical to the film’s, “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind.”

Queen’s 1984 music video for “Radio Ga Ga” features several scenes from the film.

Whitney Houston’s 1992 music video for “Queen of the Night” also features several film clips. The costume she wore also was modelled after the robot.

Isn’t it amazing how the cards can fall? Some films, books, artworks, and albums are totally panned or get a mixed, lukewarm initial reception, yet go on to become very revered classics, while many things which were wildly popular quickly date. Metropolis has that special something which has enabled it to remain popular and revered over many generations.

Metropolis at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Metropolis is based on a 1925 novel of the same name, written by director Fritz Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou for the express purposes of being adapted for the screen. Lang and von Harbou also wrote the screenplay. The story shows influences from H.G. Wells, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Mary Shelley, as well as the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Before the book existed, though, the story was set in motion by Lang’s very first trip to New York City in October 1924. He was fascinated by the skyscrapers and the lights. Ultimately, the set designs were a beautiful mix of German Expressionism, Art Déco, and New York City architecture. Reportedly, Art Déco got a huge boost of popularity from the film.

Filming began 22 May 1925, with a budget of 1.5 million Reichsmarks. Lang cast Rudolf Klein-Rogge as mad scientist Rotwang (marking their fourth film together); established screen and stage actor Alfred Abel as Joh Frederson; and unknowns Brigitte Helm as Maria and Gustav Fröhlich as Freder.

Lang was quite the demanding director, much like Chaplin, and frequently made his actors do numerous re-takes. A simple scene could take as long as two days to be deemed just right. Fröhlich could barely stand up by the time Lang was finally happy with all the film he’d shot. For the flood scene, Lang also made Helm and 500 poor Berlin kids work in a pool of water at a low temperature.

Filming finally wrapped on 30 October 1926.

The original soundtrack was composed by Gottfried Huppertz, who’d also scored Lang’s two 1924 Nibelungen films. He drew inspiration from Wagner and Strauss, melding classical elements with mild modernism. Other elements included hymn “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) and “La Marseillaise.” During filming, Huppertz often played his score on the piano to inspire and guide the actors.

The score was meant for a large orchestra to perform. Side note: If you have the opportunity to see a silent with live orchestral accompaniment, go for it! I saw some Laurel and Hardy shorts by MASS MoCA with live musicians in I believe 2007, and I also saw the original Ten Commandments with live music in November 2015, at a local church which has been kind enough to loan their beautiful building for several film screenings.

Metropolis features a number of ambitious special effects, most famously the Schüfftan process. This involves using a special mirror to give the illusion of actors being on huge, realistic sets which are actually miniatures. The technique was used again in Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie, Blackmail (1929).

During the adaptation from book to screenplay, and again during the numerous edits on the way to the finished product, a number of changes were made. Most of the references to magic and occultism were left on the cutting-room floor, as were the moral motivations for certain actions by the main characters.

Also abandoned was an ending where Freder flies to the stars. Since good writers can find inspiration even from junked plot elements and scenes, this ending became the basis for Lang’s final silent, 1929’s Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon).

All that intense, hard work ultimately paid off. Initial reception was mixed, but the film has more than gone on to prove its incredibleness.