100 Years of… The Loves of Pharaoh

Makeda and Pharaoh

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 and fuzzy-wuzzy hairpieces (terrible), it’s their overblown acting that’s 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


Harun Raschid, Ivan the Terrible, Rinaldo Rinaldini and Jack the Ripper

In probably the best condition it’s ever going to be seen, the Eureka Masters of Cinema 2019 restoration of Waxworks is a good 25 minutes shorter than the German original, all trace of which has disappeared. Instead, the Deutsche Kinemathek and Cineteca di Bologna took a surviving print from the British Film Institute and, using elements scavenged from around the world, put together this assemblage for a 2K restoration reinstating the original colour tinting. It’s a historically important film but also a vastly entertaining one, and if you’re a fan of German expressionism, it’s probably required viewing. 

The original German title, Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, is a clear nod to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a blockbuster success from four years earlier. And in the tilting perspectives, the setting at a funfair and the presence of two of Caligari’s stars – Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt – there are more connections. 

Director Paul Leni is a more cinematic, less theatrical director than Caligari director Robert Wiene and you can see why this film got him his Hollywood ticket – fast edits, in-camera special effects, shifting visual perspectives, tight compositions and dramatic (ok, theatrical) lighting. 

It’s a portmanteau film and one quarter of it never got made – that’s why you can see bandit Rinaldo Rinaldini in that main picture above but he doesn’t appear in the film. But to the plot, in which a wax museum owner hires a writer (Wilhelm Dieterle, later, as William Dieterle, a Hollywood director of epics like The Hunch Back of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton) to dream up some new stories to help bring his waxworks to life. And off “the poet”, as he’s billed, goes, imagineering away in different scenarios, in each of which he’s accompanied by the waxworks owner’s comely daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), in tales of honest love under siege. 

First “the poet” is a baker and Eva is his wife, a woman so brimming with lust that when the baker kneads the dough, his wife responds as if he’s kneading her thighs. This obvious lustiness is something that the Grand Vizier has noticed, who tells Caliph Harun al Raschid (Emil Jannings), who then sets out to make a dishonest woman of the baker’s wife by seducing her. A gripping story told with dash.  

Ivan's death is foretold
Ivan’s death is foretold

In the second story Dieterle is a groom thrown into a dungeon by Ivan the Terrible (handsome, saturnine Conrad Veidt) who intends to have his way with the man’s new wife, all the while hoping to cheat fate by avoiding his own prophesied death. Veidt goes all out, overdoing the eyes (as he tended to do), in a foreshadowing of the boggly acting style perfected by Al Pacino.  

And on to the third, the story of Spring-Heeled Jack (aka Jack the Ripper, played by Caligari star Werner Krauss) as, with murderous intention, he pursues a young couple (guess who) through the streets of London. Here is where the bulk of the missing material most likely was, since this is a much shorter segment than the other two. As a sort of compensation it’s also the most overtly expressionist and filmic, much of it taking place on sets that are almost cubist in their wonkiness, with Leni layering one exposure over another to create an effect that’s almost Dali-esque in its surrealism. 

Throughout, the craftsmanship is superb, the lighting brilliant. Watching it now in this amazing restoration, considering the scrappiness of its sources, give us some idea of what it must have looked like when it debuted, sharp and crisp as a new banknote. 

Waxworks is usually ranked after Caligari in terms of importance, which is probably fair enough, but it’s a much better film. Better made, more filmic, more exciting. And even at this distance, with most of us detuned to the dramatics of movies of the silent era, it’s vastly watchable and extremely entertaining. 

Waxworks – Watch/buy the remarkable Eureka Masters of Cinema restoration at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Gösta Ekman as Faust


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



28 August


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe born, 1749

On this day in 1749, the writer, philosopher and German statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, in Frankfurt am Main, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire, to a local lawyer and the daughter of the city’s mayor. Home-schooled, Goethe learned a variety of languages, the liberal arts and the social niceties (dancing, riding, fencing). He went on to study law, but was writing copiously on the side, often love poetry to one of the various women he fell for. Falling under the influence of Johann Gottfried Herder after he relocated to Alsace, Goethe became fascinated with Shakespeare. In 1775 he published The Sorrows of Young Werther, a literary sensation in the Sturm and Drang genre which made him internationally famous. He became a member of the Duke of Weimar’s privy council, wrote a ground-breaking scientific work called The Metamorphosis of Plants, which pre-figured aspects of evolution, took part in a battle against revolutionary France and became a theatre director at Weimar. In 1808 he published his most famous work, Faust Part 1, following it two years later with his Theory of Colours, which influenced Schopenhauer and JMW Turner. Also fascinated by linguistics and mineralogy, he has a mineral (goethite) named after him.




Faust (1926, dir: FW Murnau)

It is one of the great oddnesses of people who watch films for a living that they insist that other people should be interested in silent movies. Most people are not interested in silent film, and on the whole they’re right not to be. But perhaps an exception could be made for a few of the great auteurs. FW Murnau is one such. Personally, I don’t think his Sunrise stands up that well to a modern viewing, historically important though it is. But Nosferatu does, and so does Faust, for broadly similar reasons. They show Murnau abandoning realism and concentrating on evoking emotion – fear in the former and awe in the latter, which he does with a skill that in some respects has yet to be equalled.
Faust sticks passably close to Goethe’s original story, telling the story of a learned old man (Gösta Ekman) bewitched by the beauty of the young innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn) and begging the devil Mephisto (Emil Jannings) to make him young again, in return for which the scholar will surrender his soul. All this while outside plague is raging, people are dying, the world is going to hell in a handcart. But not Faust. Now young again he entirely forgets his former concerns with healing the sick and finding a cure for the sickness, preferring to yield to physical pleasure, love, hedonism and all the rest of it.
So much for the plot. But look at how Murnau dresses it. This is his legacy. And as various critics have already pointed out, Murnau wasn’t making an arthouse movie for a select set. He was taking an already well known story and telling it with all the cinematic bells and whistles he had at his disposal – this is blockbuster cinema, 1920s style.
Take the scene where the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride through the sky. Or where Mephisto and St Michael are arguing about the moral weakness of the human species. Or minutes later the majestic sequence when Mephisto appears and hovers gigantically over a small German hamlet. Forget realism, this is high style, a kind of gothic expressionism. Later scenes, where Faust flies on Mephisto’s cloak, perhaps work less well, because a sort of realism is Murnau’s aim, and there’s no way that trees made of cotton wool are going to pass 21st century muster. But when we’re in the realm of smoke and fog (which could be the film’s subtitle) and Carl Hoffman’s majestic cinematography, all extreme blacks and stark whites, crazily tilting roofs, perspectives twisted way beyond the possible, the imagination can run wild.
As with the modern Hollywood blockbuster, none of this sort of special effects trickery and “look at this” showmanship is worth a hill of beans if there isn’t a love story at the centre of it. And though it’s true that the relationship of Faust and Gretchen can’t quite match that of Faust and Mephisto for screen power – the love stuff drags in the middle section, to be honest – Murnau brings it all to a terrible, heart-rending conclusion by the end, when the Mephistophelean chickens come home to roost for Faust, and more tragically for Gretchen, who is surely an innocent in all this.
A triumph of story-telling, of special effects, of German expressionism and of sheer theatrical bravado, Faust was the most expensive film ever made in Germany. It’s old, certainly, but watching it takes only a minute or two of adjustment and you’re transported, as if on Mephisto’s cloak, from the world of Michael Bay to the universe of FW Murnau.



Why Watch?


  • One of the great films, silent or otherwise
  • Carl Hoffman’s amazing cinematography
  • Emil Jannings as a superbly malevolent Mephisto
  • Murnau’s often in-camera special effects


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Faust – Watch it now at Amazon





The Blue Angel

Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel



This is the film that made Marlene Dietrich a household scandal back in 1930. It’s the story of how a pompous but respectable schoolteacher is lured on to the rocks by Lola-Lola, the nightclub singer in a Weimar-era club who can’t help “Falling in Love Again” (which Dietrich sings here). Poor Emil Jannings, who played the professor, thought he was the star of the film – as well he might since he’d won the Best Actor Oscar the year before, at the very first Academy Awards. He resisted director Von Sternberg’s choice of Dietrich, then a nobody, as the temptress. Von Sternberg had discovered her acting in a stage play quite by accident. “She was a perfect medium, who with intelligence absorbed my direction, and despite her own misgivings responded to my conception of a female archetype,” Von Sternberg later wrote. “I … took a beautiful woman, instructed her, presented her carefully, edited her charms, disguised her imperfections, and led her to crystallise a pictorial aphrodisiac.” He created an icon, in other words, and Jannings “the perfect actor… opposed me every step of the way.”

None of this opposition is visible on screen, where art is imitating life and the teacher’s human weakness is being swamped by Lola-Lola’s balls-out sensuality. The Blue Angel was one of the first major talkies shot in Germany and was made in both German and English versions – shot twice, not overdubbed or anything so simple. The German version is longer and more satisfying and it’s also better preserved. Indeed the English version was considered lost for decades. Restoration can do wonderful things but the sound is “restricted” as the technical types would describe it (it sounds like a tin-can-and-string telephone in other words). Top tip: watch the German version with English subtitles.

Why see it? It’s an early talkie from Germany’s Weimar period before the Nazis arrived, a classic story of a foolish humbug brought low by his own lust and a chance to see a legend in the process of being created, Dietrich in her breakout role, still slightly hausfrau-ish but already in top hat and black stockings, a performance that Madonna must have watched a thousand times.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The Blue Angel – at Amazon






Emil Jannings as Mephisto in Faust

It says a lot about the continuing differences between the Old World and the New that not one of the many stabs at a straightforward cinematic version of Faust is American. The tale of the old man who sells his soul to have his youth back and then uses his new vigour to ruin a beautiful young girl’s life is a European staple, but probably not the sort of thing Tom Hanks’s agent is going to beat down Meg Ryan’s door with – in the New World you can have it all; in the Old it comes at a cost.

No matter, the German F.W. Murnau made this version in 1926, in the days when any country could make a silent film and show it anywhere in the world – no dubbing or subtitling required, of course. Now, I’m not going to pretend that Murnau’s liberties with the original text will make Goethe scholars happy. Nor will his Expressionist vision completely satisfy the Matrix generation either. But give yourself a few minutes of adjustment – and you will find yourself enjoying the fantastic special effects, the gothic extravagance of his actors’ gestures and Murnau’s flat refusal to be Naturalistic, unless he absolutely has to be. Look at the way Mephistopheles hovers over the sleepy German hamlet, all billowing malevolence – it’s a remarkable and haunting image and all done in camera, with models (obvious models at that). If only more films were like this.

Hollywood snapped Murnau up, and his actors, and showed them the sort of excess that modern film stars can only dream about. By the late Twenties Emil Jannings (the operatic and impish Mephistopheles) was among the most famous actors in the world. But by 1931 the careers of Jannings and Camilla Horn (who plays the pre-Raphaelite Gretchen) were over, killed by the talkies that exposed their accents, and Murnau had died in a car crash.

The garden of earthly delights followed by the day of reckoning – how Faustian is that? Maybe the Americans are just being cautious.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

Faust – at Amazon