Passions run amok in `Phantom'

It's a lesser-known but still fascinating film by German director F.W. Murnau

Critics' picks: New DVDs

September 10, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach

PHANTOM -- Flicker Alley / $29.95

Few figures loom larger over the world of silent cinema than German director F.W. Murnau.

Though best known for his two seminal works, the relentlessly creepy vampire flick Nosferatu (1922) and the gorgeous cinematic tone poem Sunrise (1927), he made some 20 films between 1919 and his premature death in 1931, from injuries sustained in a Santa Barbara, Calif., car accident.

Phantom, released in 1922, may not enjoy the reputation of those two films, which are justifiably included among the greatest, most influential movies ever made.

But it's nearly as fascinating as either, and just as visually stunning.

Based on a novel by famed German author and Nobel Prize winner Gerhart Hauptmann, who strolls onscreen for a few seconds as the movie opens, Phantom stars Alfred Abel (best remembered as the idealistic hero of Fritz Lang's Metropolis).

Abel portrays Lorenz, a meek government functionary whose life is thrown into turmoil by the lovely, upper-class Veronika (Lya de Putti).

The two meet when she nearly runs him over with her chariot.

It's an apt metaphor for her effect on his life, which is transformed from one that's safe and predictable to one in which passions come to the fore and anything's possible - including ruin.

So obsessed is Lorenz with Veronika that, when it becomes clear he will never develop a relationship with her, he focuses his affections on a prostitute who looks just like her (also played by de Putti).

Watching this film, it becomes clear where Alfred Hitchcock found at least some of the inspiration for his 1958 classic, Vertigo.

Though not as deliriously impressionistic as Nosferatu (or Robert Wiene's landmark 1922 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Phantom contains its share of skewed perspectives and twisted landscapes. Carriages come out of black holes, shadows seem to pursue the story's protagonist.

In one famous scene, the houses along the street where he's walking literally threaten to enclose him.

Special features

The print of Phantom, lovingly struck from an original 1922 negative, is nearly flawless, with tinting that restorers - through magic explained in an accompanying booklet, The Colors of Phantom - believe duplicates Murnau's original intent.

Extras on the disc include a 15-minute documentary on the history of the film, Introduction to Phantom; biographies of the cast and crew; and a selection of documents connected with the film.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

STAR WARS TRILOGY (Star Wars, aka A New Hope; The Empire Strikes Back; Return of the Jedi) --20th Century Fox Film Entertainment / $29.98 each

These three two-disc sets offer fans the chance to experience the original three Star Wars films both as George Lucas originally intended, and as he has refined his vision over the years.

Each title includes the film as currently available on DVD, as well as the film as it was originally seen in theaters, before Lucas started tinkering with them.

The differences aren't all that substantive, but they are noticeable.

On Jedi, for instance, the face of Darth Vader as revealed at the end of the film was originally British actor Sebastian Shaw's; on the new version's ending, it's Hayden Christensen's.

The special editions will be available until Dec. 31, after which only the new versions will remain on the market.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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