File #6.1 – F.W. Murnau’s ‘Phantom’
Did you miss this? No? Well, here I come back not with the full feature that you’ve been used to, but with an Addendum to the sixth installment of this particular series of essays on the Masters of Horror. This comes up now because I had finally the time to watch one of the movies that I had piled up in watching schedule, a movie that wasn’t part of my retrospective of the horror films of F.W. Murnau, because in my personal database it wasn’t named as such, it was catalogued as in the ‘fantasy’ genre, and while it did have a horror-like name, it wasn’t included in my list because of what I said earlier. So, here comes the publishing date of the sixth installment (of a total of seven so far) that have been made, and everyone seems to enjoy and read it quite well, but there’s one particular guy who doesn’t seem to be pleased. You can read here the F.W. Murnau edition of my Masters of Horror feature, and in the comments you can read Peter asking me why I didn’t put ‘Phantom’ (1922) in the survey, to which I replied that I didn’t see it because of the reasons that I’ve already mentioned, but then I made a promise, that I haven’t been able to fulfill until this day, and here we are, reviewing ‘Phantom’ (1922) but not for a little paragraph as I said, but for a full review, as I need to say a few things about this silent movie.First of all, I have to declare that this film isn’t horror. It has some elements that could be considered that could be considered surreal or dream-like, but not horrific, most of the sequences could be described as nightmarish but not entirely horrific. There’s a moment of this movie where the movie becomes something else, something way too modern for it to be made in the 20’s, and that’s the series of sequences and scenes where our protagonist sees his oportunities and chances thin out, we see his nightmares, the city overcomes him, he sees the buildings falling over him, a phantom carriage, the same that has marked his destiny and made him what he is right now… and then we cut to a scene/flashback recollection of his life with the girl that he is going out with, a spiraling madness that mixes closeups with overhead shots, camera movements that would make audiences in the 20’s dizzy because how not used where to those at that time, beautiful and crazy at the same time, that’s where the film becomes something else entirely, something not horrific, yet at the same time visually rich and entrancing, something that seems to come out from early horror cinema, but at the same time it doesn’t belong in the same breath as ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), for example, even if released the same year and directed by the same master of horror.
Though there are similarities between this and the vampire movie that everyone loves, that becomes more visible through an overview of a particular style that of the german romanticism (again, no german expressionism), that exploits the visual style not for the sake of it, but because of the powerful emotions at play by the actors and the situations at play. The plot seems more like a soap opera that could air any day at your local access channel, there’s a man that suffers because of his impossible love, he loves the woman that occupies his mind every minute of his life, though why does he looks at the women around him in desdain in comparison to the woman that is way too rich and powerful for even take into consideration a poor poet that no one cares about, as our protagonist is? The answer couldn’t be more german, our poet is obsessed with the woman named Veronika because her carriage pushed him over in the street and almost run him over, he gets a glimpse to her beautiful face and he can’t control himself, he just wants to be with this woman, though he can’t he quickly is given the news that she is engaged with someone of her own class (classic soap opera plot point here guys) so he turns his face and love to the next best thing: a goldigger that looks exactly like her.
This is a sad tragedy what we see here, we see how this new woman practically steals all the money that our poet had, money that he asked from his aunt to scale socially, under the promise that his poetry career was waiting for him, that he needed the money for it to be published, but the vain promises given by scholars and publishers just went nothing, and he was alone and needy with all the money that he could ask for to make a woman happy, and the appearance of this wonderful lady was the rightful trigger for his ultimate social decay and demise. Let’s say this again, this is a melodramatic story, a tragedy with all its words, but the consequences and how he fails is rather horrific, may I reinstate what I said earlier on the fact that this movie isn’t horror… it might as well be, a horror of the social kind, where we see how he makes the wrong choices all the time and we can’t help it in any way…
I mean, I guess that in the end it isn’t really horror, as we see that he ends up alive at the start of the film. How can we know that? Well, this movie is also quite experimental, starting with our protagonist living in a nice house and with nice people around him, but still tormented by the things he did, he starts writing about them, and what we see is what he writes. A nifty way to start your movie, but I’m not sure if this was new at the time or if it was already in use. This movie is totally recomendable on the grounds that it’s gut-wrenching and strong/powerful in the way that it conveys its emotions. (****)