100 Years of… The Loves of Pharaoh

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Why this film from 1922 is called The Loves of Pharaoh in English is a bit of a mystery. It’s Das Weib des Pharao – Pharaoh’s Woman (or Wife) – in German and in every other language it was translated into (per the IMDb), the lady in question has been faithfully rendered as wife/woman/love singular.

In fact the film was also much messed about with when it first debuted. In Russia Pharaoh was more of a tyrant, in the US there was more of a happy ending, whereas in its native Germany audiences got to see more or less what the director Ernst Lubitsch and writers Norbert Falk and Hanns Kräly had wanted them to see – the story of the ruler of Egypt utterly undone by love. The Italians upped the love angle even more, apparently.

It is one of those “big” pictures Gloria Swanson was referencing in Sunset Blvd., a massive epic, in fact, designed to show Hollywood that Lubitsch could deliver the sort of spectacular dramatic production that DW Griffith and his ilk were specialising in – huge sets, exotic locations, impressive sets, lavish costumes, a cast of thousands.

And yet at its heart there’s a small story: Pharaoh (Emil Jannings) falling for the Greek slave Theonis (Dagny Servaes), in spite of the fact that he’s meant to be taking the daughter of the Ethiopian king, Samlak (Paul Wegener), as his bride, to cement a treaty that will ensure both countries’ safety and prosperity. Sadly for Pharaoh, Theonis, an undoubted beauty, only has eyes for the dashing Ramphis, whose father, Sotis, is the architect/engineer working on the pharaoh’s treasury, scene of much worker unrest – art perhaps imitating the unstable political situation in Weimar Germany at the time – and around which Falk and Kräly try to spin more story than wants to be spun.

Jannings is particularly good as the Pharaoh – imperious in his pomp, desolate once struck by love (Jannings would later play the professor similarly undone by love, in the shape of Marlene Dietrich, in The Blue Angel) – and Servaes is also plausible as a woman who’d turn the head of a man/god. Other roles are more problematic. Let’s just leave to one side the fact that Ethiopians Samlak and his daughter Makeda (Lyda Salmonova) and their retinue are played by white Europeans in blackface. Their fuzzy-wuzzy hairpieces are terrible, but it’s their overblown acting that’s really difficult to take. As Ramphis, Harry Liedtke isn’t half as dashing as Theonis’s burning loins are meant to suggest, and another terrible wig (a Louise Brooks bob, give or take) doesn’t help. He’s a wooden romantic lead.

Makeda and the high priest
Makeda and a disapproving high priest

Side roles – high priests, viziers, grand courtiers etc – save the day a bit, the likes of Friedrich Kühne and Paul Biensfeldt pulling the sort of faces that snooty high priests and courtiers have pulled all the way down the decades and continue to pull in grand historical epics to this day.

It’s a film of two halves, one half working a lot better than the other. There’s the personal stuff, indoors, where Lubitsch’s use of lighting – often in big pools – helps highlight the inner turmoil of the pharaoh (who it’s easy to feel for, even though he’s also a tyrant). And then there’s the outdoors stuff. The film “worked” in the sense that it got Lubitsch (and Jannings) a ticket to Hollywood, but it has to be said that overall it isn’t prime Lubitsch. His celebrated “touch” – a gift for telling psychological moments – is evident early on but doesn’t get much of a look-in once the fighting between Pharaoh’s army and the Ethiopians gets underway. And Lubitsch also isn’t much of an action director. There are a lot of people coming and going, armies clashing, chariots flying hither and yon, but it’s not particularly well choreographed and is, sad to say, all a bit of a senseless melee, in spite of the spectacle’s vastness and impressiveness in terms of sheer numbers.

Long thought lost, this Alpha-Omega version took five years to assemble and finally debuted in 2011. There’s an explanation before the film gets going, detailing how various parts of the film were found in Russia, Germany, Italy and New York, and that this “complete” version is still missing about a fifth of its running length – stills and intertitle cards plug the gaps, pretty well. As to the quality of the 2K restoration, it varies from the superb to the slightly soft, depending, I’m supposing, on whether it’s Russian, American, German or Italian original footage we’re watching.

Huge and ambitious, the most expensive German film ever made to date also featured big music by Eduard Künneke, who uses the full range of the orchestra to ring the emotional changes. It’s expressive and impressive and it’s there on the Alpha-Omega assemblage, which is available through their site and nowhere else. It’s not particularly cheap, be warned, but then this was a massive job of reconstruction.

You can buy the restored film here

© Steve Morrissey 2022

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