Murnau and the Phantoms of Germany


To view Phantom click here.

It’s that time of year when Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau’s interpretation of Dracula, appears on lists of recommended horror films. The oldest, existing film version of Bram Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu is likely Murnau’s most watched title. It’s eerie Expressionist style was a major influence on the American horror genre, but Murnau’s talent for mise-en-scène is evident in all of his films. I have been fortunate enough to see most of his movies, but one film, Phantom, eluded me until recently. Currently streaming on FilmStruck, Phantom (1922) was one of those thousands of silents that had been lost to the pages of history. However, in the early 2000s, a print of the film was found in an old theater in Germany. The film was restored through the efforts of several organizations, including the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

Phantom was released just eight months after Nosferatu. Despite the timing of its release and the title, this is not a tale of horror and the supernatural. Phantom is that specific type of melodrama popular in Germany during the 1920s dubbed kammerspielfilm. The stories focused on the plights of ordinary, good-hearted folks who are driven by poverty and desperation to cross moral lines into theft, prostitution, fraud, embezzlement and other illegal acts. Germany during the Weimar Republic and after was a society in shambles. Failing social institutions, from the economy to law & order to the medical establishment, resulted in the destruction of the working class and the decline of the middle class. Audiences could relate to these stories of characters in economic despair and moral crisis.


Phantom features a cast of prominent stars of the Expressionist cinema. Alfred Abel plays Lorenz, a poet who works as the town clerk. Unfortunately, he does not earn enough money to support his ailing mother and siblings. Cinephiles might recognize Abel from several Fritz Lang films: He played Count Told in the Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) and the industrial magnate Jon Fredersen in Metropolis (1927). On his way to work one morning, Lorenz is struck down by a carriage drawn by two white horses. The carriage was driven by Veronika Harlan (Lya De Putti), the beautiful daughter of the town’s wealthiest family. The normally responsible Lorenz becomes obsessed with her. He not only daydreams about courting Veronika, but he begins to have unusual visions. He falls prey to his heartless aunt, a greedy woman who owns the local pawnshop. Believing that Lorenz’s poems will surely get published, she loans him money, which he spends on pursuing Veronika. When it is clear that Veronika is out of his league, Lorenz foolishly blows the rest of his aunt’s money on the shameless Mellitta (Lya De Putti), who looks exactly like his dream girl. Lya De Putti, who would soon leave for Hollywood to play vamp roles, costars as both Veronika and Mellitta. Meanwhile, Lorenz’s mother continues to decline while his sister leaves home to seek a better life only to fall into prostitution. The story unfolds in flashback as Lorenz writes down his life story at the urging of wife Marie, played by Lil Dagover who was the melancholy Jane in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Murnau’s mastery of mise-en-scène is evident in the formal compositions, detailed set design and controlled lighting. An Expressionist style is reserved for Lorenz’s dream of his perfect day with Veronika. The pair descend on an exaggerated spiral structure in which a bicyclist endlessly circles, suggesting the delirium in Lorenz’s mind. The couple dance at a club, and the camera joins them on the dance floor, spiraling around them as Lorenz experiences his fever dream. An extreme high angle tells us that fate is looking down on Lorenz, predicting his downfall. The Lorenz family home is a dark hovel shot in low-key and high-contrast lighting. Their economic trap is reinforced through shots of family members composed in frames within frames.

Phantom was lauded at the time for its use of double exposures and other special effects. Murnau paid homage to Victor Sjöström’s Phantom Carriage (1920), a major influence in terms of double exposure and in-camera effects, with a scene in which Lorenz hallucinates Veronika racing through the streets in her carriage. Other effects include an Inception-like (2010) scene in which the city’s buildings seem to tip forward as Lorenz skulks down the street. Lorenz’s delusions and hallucinations give the film a dream-like quality, enhanced by the tinting. The most common colors are blue and amber, but green was used for the sequence at the city’s most expensive restaurant, while a hazy lavender tints a dreamy shot of Veronika in her bedroom.

Watching German films of the 1920s is a window into the era. In addition to chronicling the financial decline of the working and middle classes, the films reflect the demoralized state of the German people after losing WWI. Expressionist films often feature male characters, like Lorenz, Francis and Cesare of Dr. Caligari and Hutter of Nosferatu, who fall into a daze or delusion. The inner workings of their fevered minds are expressed in the distorted mise-en-scène. Like the shell-shocked veterans who came home from the war, the male characters in Expressionist films are emotionally fragile or mentally unstable. They exist in a kind of altered state, halfway between sanity and reality—not unlike the trench soldiers on the front driven into a stupor by the constant barrage of shelling week after week. These weakened male characters in Expressionist films are the real phantoms—not some ghostly, supernatural presence. Social institutions, including marriage, family, the law and the medical establishment do little to help these characters, just as they failed the German people in real life.

Watching Phantom on a small screen is not an easy viewing experience. The film is slowly paced, which is typical of Expressionist films. On a big screen in a theater, the mise-en-scène and deliberate pacing create an atmosphere and mood; on a small screen, these characteristics are diminished. But, patient viewers will be rewarded with an exquisitely crafted film that showcases popular stars of Expressionist cinema while capturing the bitter history of a defeated country.

Susan Doll

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1 Response Murnau and the Phantoms of Germany
Posted By Doug : October 30, 2017 11:54 pm

“Like the shell-shocked veterans who came home from the war, the male characters in Expressionist films are emotionally fragile or mentally unstable.”
If these German Expressionist films accurately mirror the society in which they were created,is it any wonder that Germans would put their nation in the hands of a man who promised to restore their national identity?
But instead, Hitler brought them even greater defeat.
Susan, your post is nudging me even closer to trying Filmstruck.

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