- Phantom (1922)
“There is no other art form that reaches out so broadly to the people as the cinema,” wrote the renowned German dramatist and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann in 1922. “The demand for cinematic creations is so powerful that one can indeed call this spiritual nourishment, much like bread and potatoes, a form of nourishment for the people.”1 These words were written amidst fears within the literary establishment over literature’s apparently declining popular relevance in the new age of the film—literature seemed no longer to be a people’s art (if it ever really had been). For many cultural elites, film embodied modernity’s most vulgar and destructive aspects, and threatened the culture of the written word with extinction.
Hauptmann’s description of the movies as food for the Volk appeared in the program at the premiere of the 1922 film Phantom, based on the writer’s novel of the same name. Hauptmann, rather than oppose the cinema, clearly saw it as a means of disseminating his work to a mass audience and often allowed his works to be filmed. By the time of the film’s release, the Nobel Prize-winning Hauptmann had taken on the role of a national hero. In order to emphasize the film’s literary credentials, its release was timed to coincide with Hauptmann’s 60th birthday, an event that was commemorated throughout Germany. The film even pays homage to the great author in its opening images—documentary footage depicts the very dignified Hauptmann himself strolling along a country road, book in hand.
Phantom was thus inscribed into a discourse of preservation—the preservation of the legacy of the national poet Hauptmann, as well as the preservation of literary values (and so implicitly certain cultural values) within the relatively young filmic medium. Now, some eighty-five years later, the profile of the film’s director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, greatly overshadows that of Hauptmann’s. Thanks to Murnau’s stature, the original negative of Phantom survives, and this important early work was recently reconstructed and restored by the German Federal Archive and the Friedrich–Wilhelm–Murnau-Foundation. Flicker Alley has now released the fruits of this project on DVD.
Hauptmann’s novel Phantom appeared in serialized form in the Berliner Illustrirten Zeitung and was speedily adapted for the screen by Thea von Harbou in one of several collaborations with Murnau (Burning Soil [Der brennende Acker], 1922; The Expulsion [Die Austreibung], 1923; and The Finances of the Grand Duke [Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs], 1923). The film was produced by the legendary Erich Pommer for Decla-Bioscop, which specialized in adaptations of serial literature. Phantom came on the heels of Murnau’s immeasurably influential Nosferatu (1922), but before the film that made him internationally famous, The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924). Phantom shares something with both these films—the macabre small-town milieu of Nosferatu, and Last Laugh’s obsession with luxury and appearance. Reviews were mixed at best, often, in a somewhat misogynistic vein, blaming perceived deficiencies on Thea von Harbou’s overly melodramatic script. Although Phantom will never have the canonic status of Nosferatu or [End Page 95] Last Laugh, it is a fascinating film that we are fortunate to have still with us.
After referencing its literary source in the image of the author Hauptmann, the narrative proper begins with a scene of authorship. In his idyllic countryside home, we see Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel, best known as the industrialist Joh Fredersen in Metropolis) staring pensively out of a window. His wife Marie (Lil Dagover of Caligari) urges him to write his life story in an empty book, made by her bookbinder father, in the hope that “the memories will become less painful.” What follows is the cinematic visualization of Lorenz’s process of written recollection—a familiar trope in Weimar cinema.
The film flashes back to a breakfast scene in Lorenz’s family home, a spare abode where the lowly city clerk lives with his mother (Frida Richard), brother (Hans Heinrich Twardowski, who played Alan in Caligari), and sister (Aud Egede Nissen). On this morning...