Monday, October 29, 2012

The Loves of Pharaoh (1922)

The final German film by Ernst Lubitsch is a huge epic shot in converted empty lots outside Berlin. It was thought lost for decades before being largely restored in the last few years. It was given a new score and fancy presentation by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, my question is, WHY?

The film has a fictional Pharaoh, played by Emil Jannings, building his treasury. Word comes that the Ethiopian king wants to sign a treaty which will be sealed by marriage to his daughter. Things get complicated when, in a chain of circumstances too complicated recount here, the king falls in love with the Greek slave of the Ethiopian princess. He then breaks the treaty, plunges his kingdom into war and causes all sorts of problems for a woman who is actually in love with someone else (the son of the Pharaoh's architect).

High art it's not, silly melodrama it is. (Though several people walking to the subway after the film were going on about the deeper meanings of the silly proceedings)

Screened with a new score that was performed live by composer Joseph C Phillips and Numinous it was also the first use of a new screen that can be used for various projected projects.

I should say at the start  that I had miserable seats  that were too close and after a while I stopped watching the screen and took to watching the film in Phillip's monitor next to his podium. The off center angle and the closeness of the second row have left my next sore from looking up.

The film looks spectacular. there is no getting around the impressiveness of the scale of everything. The film is a visual feast.

Unfortunately the film is a mess and it had much of the audience frequently roaring with laughter (I don't think the women behind me stopped for more than a couple of minutes). Blame the script which is really bad potboiler material. Everyone is reduced down to being love sick kids to the point that you can't believe any of it.

Worse yet are the performances which are just plain bad, even by silent movie standards of the period. This sort of emoting went out of style a decade before, but here we have Jannings looking constantly constipated (this is the greatest actor of his age?), Harry Liedtke as the love object of the slave girl just being bad, Paul Wegener as the Ethiopian king, seeming to be wandering in from another better film.

Even allowing for this film being of a certain time it's still awful.

The restoration is a mixed bag. Yes most of the film is here but if I did my math correctly in my head, about fifth isn't. Much of it seems to be a shot here or there, but several sequences are gone completely and a few others are missing portions. the film uses title cards and in some cases photos to bridge the gaps . They should have stuck with the title cards since the photos don't tell us enough.

The score by Mr Phillips is a mixed bag. Mostly it's serviceable but there are several times when the film riffs on other better scores including some from Bernard Hermann that pull you out of the film. I also didn't particularly like some of the styles chosen, such as the jokey one that Phillips chose to play during the Egyptian army going off to war.

I did not have a good time and had I been able to duck out without having to step over several people and not cross the stage I would have left about a half an hour in.

In the end I'm left to ponder of all of the silent films out there, of all the films being restored why was this one given special treatment? It boggles my mind.

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