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.