Thursday, April 5, 2012
Though F.W. Murnau immediately followed his iconic vampire tale Nosferatu with a film called Phantom, there is nothing supernatural about this dreamlike examination of desire and obsession. It's the story of Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel), a mild-mannered and honest city clerk who's lost in the "dream world" of books, a shy and quiet man who lives with his mother and siblings and says that, for him, books give him experiences that he could never have in his actual staid life. Lorenz is a boringly decent man, closed off from the world and from sensual experience; when he's not in his room reading, he's at his dull job, where he always shows up late because he's such a dreamer, or in the bookstore, where the owner's daughter Marie (Lil Dagover) shyly loves him from a distance without ever expressing her feelings for him. It's a routine and quiet life, abstracted and restrained, with Lorenz's biggest thrills coming from literature, his greatest ambitions contained in the poems that he secretly writes.
This all changes one day when he's run down in the street by a woman driving a carriage. She stops and stands over him, and as he comes to, he's hypnotized and enthralled by the sight of her face, and he becomes obsessed with her. It's sudden and utterly illogical, an abrupt break in the linear path of this man's solitary, predictable existence. In that moment, he loses all sense of perspective, and everything else in his life melts away into insignificance; all he can do from this point on is frantically pursue this woman, about whom he knows nothing beyond a brief glimpse of her face. He eventually finds out that she is Veronika (Lya de Putti), the daughter of a wealthy family, unattainable to a lowly and pathetic clerk. As he desperately chases her, he's fended off by her servants and her parents, and he begins making one terrible decision after another, totally losing control of himself and forsaking the morality that had once defined his life. He is now solely "a poet... a man with no luck... who chases a shadow... a phantom!"
It's a stock melodramatic narrative that Murnau treats as melancholy poetry. The melodrama is especially recognizable in the way that Lorenz's descent into madness and misery parallels his sister Melanie's (Aud Egede Nissen) similar path into decadence and sin, in her case motivated simply by boredom with a gray, workaday lower-class life — she didn't need Lorenz's excuse of a sudden, consciousness-erasing obsession to leave behind the safety of home for taverns and trashy hotels. The film is somewhat slow and plodding at times, its minimal incidents stretched out between long periods of sensuous stasis. In some ways, though, this quality only adds to the dreamlike, hypnotized nature of Lorenz's experiences.
The film's best moments are Lorenz's periodic departures into daydreaming fantasy, signaled by shots that go slowly out of focus until the world is rendered as vaguely defined shapes and indistinct blurs, gradually losing tangibility so that dreamlike images of impossible love can take form, bright and brilliant, briefly seeming as real as the physical world, if not even more so. These images brilliantly convey Lorenz's disconnection from the world, the way he's sucked into this ephemeral world of dreams, the mere momentary sight of a woman's face destabilizing his world until it seems to be fading away, replaced by reveries and imaginings. He never sees the woman again, but he can't stop thinking about her. He imagines her carriage as a ghostly presence superimposed on the world, always just out of his reach. He imagines her face, surrounded by fog, a phantom, the ghost of a memory. He even finds her doppelganger, a woman (also played by de Putti) who looks just like his beloved but is far more worldly and accessible, as long as he can shower her with borrowed money and expensive goods, squandering his reputation and everything he has for some ephemeral pleasure with this woman who's only an echo of his real desire — although counter-intuitively, this echo is more material and tangible than the ghostly original for whom she's standing in.
Phantom would be just another 1920s melodrama of corruption and redemption if not for Murnau's expressive, poetic aestheticization of Lorenz's logically inexplicable downfall. It's a gorgeous and rigorous film, with Lorenz continually framed by doorways and mirrors, which suggest separation from the world. His sister Melanie, too, is introduced doing her makeup in a cracked mirror, half her face missing as she mugs and purses her lips in the glass, foreshadowing her brokenness. The final few chapters are especially haunting, as Lorenz's world collapses around him, even literally collapsing in a sequence where the buildings of the town seem to tip over on him, the shadows of their spiked spires chasing him along the streets, an effective bit of trick photography that Murnau would then reuse for The Last Laugh.
Despite its formal beauty and dreamy qualities, Phantom isn't one of Murnau's strongest movies. Its appeal is in the way Murnau takes a melodramatic narrative and strips it down to a core of almost surreal, and certainly irrational, emotional breakdown.