A meditation on guilt and unfulfilled potential, Phantom travels back in time through subjective memory, acting as catharsis for an artist haunted by his dreams. Painting the past in a nostalgic silver-blue, F.W. Murnau fuses reality with bursts of the fantastic, propelling his protagonist through fits of reverie so vivid that the truth sways in their wake. Presenting each shot as ornate tableau or miniature picture box, Murnau commiserates with his romantic lead and constructs an impressionistic world to mirror his sensibilities, fabricating a singular alternative to life that falters only when it veers into the baldly sentimental.
Boyish and enraptured by literature and fantasy, Lorenz lives vicariously through his passions, ignoring poverty and domestic turmoil by never peering beyond the margins of a book. Struck by a passing carriage while drifting into the rhythm of a poem, Lorenz transfers his obsession to a new object, gazing deeply into the eyes of a blonde nymph as she hoists him from the cobblestone. The camera frames her face in a portrait, beckoning the viewer to share the boy’s fixation, highlighting her porcelain complexion and low hanging curls, deifying the female form. As Lorenz shadows her, the camera gravitates into a secluded grotto, untethering from the literal-minded narrative and embracing metaphor, using the estate’s spiral staircase and noble white horses as symbols for the girl’s unattainability.
As a director, Murnau is less partisan to architecture and structure than his fellow expressionists, favoring a subtle and more resonant rush of emotion, his lens straying from focus as Lorenz’s mind wanders and surging as the writer’s desire is juxtaposed atop the Potsdam skyline. A dancehall sequence shares this ecstatic nature, journeying from golden champagne bubbles to streams of milky smoke, ultimately plummeting to the floor with the prostitute that exhaled the billowy vapor. Each of these formidable images is cohesively strung in succession, forcing the melancholy threads to play second fiddle to the perpetuity of motion, vision and hope.
Space is also used to convey yearning, placing the shrunken, dispossessed scribe on a lower berth as his beloved’s mother, a woman of wealth and confidence, quizzically leers down at his shriveled shape. Lorenz’s pallid demeanor may even be played for laughs, each word from his comically dour matriarch spilling over him like a frigid pool of self-pity and shame, his wretched longing and doubt doubling as Schadenfreude.
Feelings of audience superiority and detachment fade as Lorenz devolves into a street-wise charlatan, his mind polluted by unrequited lust and avarice, represented on screen by a dainty hand depositing cash into the cups of a brassiere. His loss of identity and the photography that accompanies it are stirring, sabotaged only by a moralistic and overwrought final act, one desperate to wring suspense from a delicate flight of fancy. Hints of spiritual renewal and atonement peak out from the epilogue, but conjecture doesn’t suit a picture of this magnitude, leaving many of F.W. Murnau’s primary themes in chrysalis, not yet ready to burst from their shell.
Phantom (Uco-Film GMBH, 1922)
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Written by Gerhart Hauptmann (novel) and Thea von Harbou (screenplay)
Photographed by Axel Graatkjaer and Theophan Ouchakoff