Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Ernst Lubitsch’s epic relic… The Loves of Pharaoh (1921)

Dagny Servaes
It’s initially hard to sense much of the Lubitsch "touch" in this blockbuster ilm, until you realise how everything begins to revolve around human frailty, love, duty and misunderstanding.

Das Weib des Pharao (The Loves of Pharaoh or The Wife of the Pharaoh ) was the most expensive German film production up to that time with huge monolithic sets somewhat in the tradition of Cabiria and Intolerance, lavish design and costumes. There were mass battles filmed overhead from a balloon and featuring over 6,000 extras. Lubitsch filmed with some 16 cameramen… a quite extraordinary spectacle for a film made in the early 20’s.

It was a statement of intent from probably the leading film making nation outside of the USA (Paramount actually stumped up $75,000 of the funding, a figure worth many times that in the hyper-inflationary Weimer economy). It was also to be Lubitsch’s ticket to Hollywood, one last German feature after this, then next stop Mary Pickford and Rosita.

Emil Jannings
Here he cast the two powerhouses of German silent film with Paul Wegener playing Samlak the Ethiopian king and Emil Jannings as Pharaoh Amenes … there will be grandstanding! For me Jannings is the more controlled actor and he gives here yet another great physical performance as he is destroyed by the conflict between love and his duty. But that’s not to say Wegener isn’t his match in deranged pomposity!

Paul Wegener
Samlak is in search of a treaty with Egypt and writes to Amenes offering his daughter as a token of sincerity. En route a young Greek slave girl, Theonis (Dagny Servaes) meets a young Egyptian Ramphis (Harry Liedtke who had been in Sumurun and a number of other Lubitsch films). He rescues Theonis from the Ethiopians and takes her home as you would, frankly.

Samlak is not one to forgive and he certainly won’t forget, and this Egyptian “theft” still rancours even as he goes on to meet the Pharaoh. Eager to cement their diplomatic friendship, Amenes pledges to seek out and return the lost property and thus is the dramatic fulcrum of the film established.

Dagny Servaes and Harry Liedtke
Amenes is a firm ruler and one who pushes his people hard to achieve the aims of state. Many are killed in an accident at the site of his new treasury, his architect, Solis (Albert Bassermann) pleads for more time but needs must. Even so, we sense that Amenes has a heart… his responsibility weighs heavy.

Solis is also Ramphis’s father and, having greeted his sons’ new friend brings her to court where she is encountered by Amenes who is immediately struck by her beauty… Samlak spots Theonis and Amenes refusal to give her up, leads to war. Meanwhile Theonis and Ramphis have been caught trespassing on the sacred ground of the Treasury and sentenced to death. Amenes cannot bring himself to kill Theonis and uses Ramphis as a lever to win her commitment, banishing the younger man to the mines, and, as he prepares for battle he makes Theonis his queen…

Dagny Servaes and Friedrich Kühne
Is Amenes to be fatally distracted by his uncertain love and will Ramphis and Theonis ever be re-united? The story pans out in unexpected ways... not quite grand enough but still affecting.

It's fascinating to consider the differences between the two versions that substantially make up the restoration. In the Russian version, a lot of Amanes love-sickness was cut enabling his portrayal as a strong leader who overcomes personal weakness. But in Italy, the leader reduced by love was more interesting. The Russians knew what they were doing in the febrile post-revolutionary period whilst the Italians were looking for a more enduring statement of human frailty.

Emil Jannings and Dagny Servaes
Luckily the restoration team had both versions to complement each other and construct the majority of the story pretty much as Lubitsch filmed it. But this was truly international in a way that only silent film could be and each region was able to get a different slant on the story and even, in the case of the USA, a different ending. The restoration team are to be congratulated in giving us the story Lubitsch wanted to tell, or as close as it’s possible to get. There are still some 600 metres of film missing and title cards and still shots are used to fill the gaps in the story.

Dagny Servaes and Harry Liedtke
Of equal importance though is the restoration of the original “soundtrack” – the score created specifically for the film by the German composer Eduard Künneke. This has been brilliantly re-synchronised by Berndt Heller to fit and one of the extras allows you to focus on the orchestra as they play this stirring piece. It really is rare to be able to hear how the film makers wanted you to hear and makes for a really rounded production.

The film was in many sections, scanned frame by frame and the 90 year old image has probably not been seen so clearly since the film’s first run. The restoration team was able to reinstate the tints as originally intended as well – an art in itself this colourisation helps to bring the film to life.

Emil Jannings (centre)
Perhaps the ultimate tribute is that the restoration team threw out their original 2005 version after the Italian version was discovered. In doing so they were able to use the more modern techniques the same company had employed on Metropolis. The result is stunning and does full credit to Lubitsch, his set designers and chief cameramen Theodor Sparkuhl and Alfred Hansen.

There’s also a 38 minute documentary on the restoration which shows just how close we were to losing this key film in Lubitsch’s career. It may not be as sophisticated as his later work or as character-driven as Sumurun or Madame Dubarry but it’s an impressive spectacle all the same and evidence of a prodigious talent.

I watched the 2 DVD set which is available from the BFI Filmshop or direct from Alpha-Omega who have produced such an outstanding restoration.

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