by Allan Fish
(Poland 1966 183m) DVD2
Sovereign of the two worlds
p Ludwik Hager d Jerzy Kawalerowicz w Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Tadeusz Konwicki novel Boleslaw Prus ph Jerzy Wojcik ed Stanislaw Piotrowski, Witold Sobocinski m Adam Walacinski art Jerzy Skrzepinski cos Teresa Taraszewska, Wieslava Otocka
George Zelnik (Rameses XIII), Barbara Brylska (Kama), Krystyna Mikolajewska (Sarah), Piotr Pawloski (Herhor), Leszek Herdegen (Pentuer), Jerzy Buczacki (Thutmosis),
Let us make one thing clear before we start; Pharaoh’s rating as one of the classics of Polish cinema rests upon which version you see. The version released briefly on DVD by Eureka in the UK is 139m and, worse still, dubbed. It may be in full letterbox ratio, but it’s like watching any great film minus nearly three quarters of an hour of footage. Sadly, however, it’s the only version now available. Even in Poland, the original cut is rarely seen, and the only chance one has to see it with English subtitles, as I write in 2008, is to get hold of the early 1990s VHS version from Polart. Needless to say, the colour is terrible, bleached and totally washed out. The ratio is stretched vertically from the 2.35 ‘Scope ratio to standard 1.85, and the English subtitling, though okay, badly needed to be run through a spellchecker. It’s a miracle, then, that it survives at all, but if you can look through the discomfort of watching any visual epic like this in such a bastardised state, one can, especially on repeat viewings, see the greatness of the thing.
Set in the XXth Dynasty (approximately the 12th Century B.C.), Rameses, the son and heir of the pharaoh, wants to wage war on the Phoenicians to keep firm Egypt’s borders. The high priests, lead by Herhor, who effectively rule over even his kingly father, are against it. Frustrated by the lack of royal power in the face of what he sees as religious megalomania, he is only satiated by his love for a young Jewess, Sarah, who he takes as his mistress and has a son. However, the Phoenicians send in a priestess called Kama to not only seduce young Rameses, but disgrace Sarah and their child. Rameses, told of his child being baptised a Jew, banishes mother and child and Kama has him under her seductive thumb, all the while taking orders from his Pheonician enemies. Shot largely on location in Egypt, it even shot some sequences at the Hall of the Kings, soon to be taken down and rebuilt elsewhere to accommodate the Aswan dam. True, the monuments are as they are now, not as they gleamed three and a half thousand years ago, but they add not only a sense of authenticity, but a sense of wonder. The gorgeous photography of Jerzy Wojcik is barely recognisable in surviving prints, while the interior sets, full of gloomy colonnades and passageways, perfectly evoke that unseen menace in the shadows that seems to follow Rameses wherever he goes. Many of the director’s best remembered films are set in other lands in times long gone (Mother Joan of the Angels, Quo Vadis?), and his sense of detail is hard to fault. Historians may point out there never was a Rameses XII (there were only eleven), but he’s only following his source. And if he may not be helped by Walacinski’s rather pallid score or by the dull central performance from Zelnik, he is helped immensely by the supporting cast, with special mention to Pawlowski as the devious Herhor and, especially, Brylska as Kama. Her deliberately almost non-existent costumes, designed to show flashes of her bare breasts, got the film censored in some countries, yet it was not a prurient decision, but one of authenticity to the fashions of the age. From the opening sequence of two dung beetles rolling across the desert flats to the almost apocalyptic eclipse of the sun, it maintains a remorseless sense of hearing what Christopher Plummer in The Fall of the Roman Empire once called “the gods laughing.” Those with an interest in contemporary politics, meanwhile, will be quick to point out analogies to the Holocaust (in Sarah’s treatment) and the Soviet control of Poland (with the priests equating to the Communist authorities). Truly, if this film got the DVD restoration it deserved in its full length, in the original Polish and subtitled, it would be placed with the greatest epics.