I became a big fan of classic cinema after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), when I was around 10 or 11. As the years went by I tried to watch as much Hitchcock and other classics as I could, learning about German director F.W. Murnau a few years later when I saw his horror classic, Nosferatu. Despite falling in love with Nosferatu, I never really looked beyond that film to Murnau’s other work. So when the movie service Filmstruck came out with an F.W. Murnau collection, I thought this was as good a time as any to learn more about this fascinating director. Little did I know that starting my investigation of Murnau would lead me back to the master of suspense.
The studio released Phantom in 1922, a very productive year for Murnau, having released Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna, Nosferatu, and Der brennende Acker earlier that year. Phantom tells the story of Lorenz Lubota, a young, lazy, idealistic, yet very likable young man living with his mother and sister. Lorenz has a decent job as a clerk for his city, but he’s not very interested in it because what he really wants to be is a writer.
He leaves home that morning on his way to work and within a few steps, we begin to doubt he’s ever going to make it. Distracted by nearly everything, he’s like a puppy on a walk, wandering from here to there as each new thing distracts him and catches his interest. He stops off at a bookbinder/bookseller who’s a learned man of literature who gives him hope that he will soon become published. Ecstatic, Lorenz continues heading to work by way of 1,000 unnecessary stops until he’s run over by a horse and carriage driven by the most beautiful young woman he’s ever seen. After stopping to see if he’s uninjured she goes on her way. But Lorenz is struck and spends the next few acts of the film searching for his idealized woman.
Because the movie begins with a framing story we’re fairly confident that whatever happens in the film, likely to turn alright in the end. That, plus the fact that it’s a comedy give us a clue that happy endings apply. So, once the action gets to the point where Lorenz starts searching for the young woman, we already know he’s not going to end up with her because there’s another woman who’s with him at the beginning. So the mystery of the film us about his search for the woman in the carriage, the missteps he takes along the way and how he got to his present situation.
Murnau’s direction in the film is mind-blowing, especially when you consider that he made this in 1922, a year in which most of the action on screen was shown from a third-person perspective. Throughout this movie, Murnau shows us the world through Lorenz’s eyes, from a scene in which he’s shown walking through the city in which he becomes a tiny man and the buildings grow and lean over him, to a birds-eye shot of a staircase among several others. But what really struck me was when he sees another woman who looks just like the young socialite driving the carriage. He befriends her only to find that she seems to be the polar opposite of the other woman. It’s not that she’s not wealthy (she’s not), but more that she’s a leech. Her and her mother spend their time conniving on how to get however much they can from young Lorenz, a reality that he acknowledges and then accepts. He’s under no delusions that she acts anything approaching a nice woman, in fact upon their very first meeting she and her mother walk out and stick him with the check just as he sits down and orders champagne for the three of them. But he’s willing to settle for a simulation, if in appearance only. He lies to his wealthy and stingy aunt in order to borrow money from her so he can dress up the leech up to look like the socialite and spends the rest of the movie living against his morals to keep his fantasy alive and his leech by his side.
It’s at this point that anyone who has watched Vertigo is thinking “Aha! I’ve seen this before.” and if you watch the two back to back you’ll notice many similar visual motifs throughout. What I found most fascinating was how Murnau uses the motifs in a very startling, even jarring manner, in his comedy, but not for comedic effect. While Hitchcock is more plodding in his rhythms and uses these motifs to paint a creepy and sinister portrait.
Lorenz strikes the audience as an engaging, likable character whose defects are more due to his naivete, while Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, does just about the same things yet strikes us as twisted, even creepy. We may like him despite all of this (thanks in no small part to Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal), we may even sympathize that he was once a brilliant detective brought down by a fall and the subsequent and recurring vertigo, but the pace, the darkness of the shots, the music and Stewart’s portrayal of Scottie as friendly with a side of sinister leaves us rooting for him, yet uneasy. Even when we’re confronted with the knowledge that Scottie isn’t actually making up one woman to look like another, but unbeknownst to him, is actually making her up to look like the character she played in the past, we still find the whole exercise unsettling.
Is he acting as a detective merely following clues as he asks Judy Barton first to wear this, then that, until she ends up looking just like Madeleine, or is he just being a creep? I think it’s a bit of both. But in Phantom, Lorenz’s actions might strike us a sad, but we read this as a symptom of his youthfulness and are more concerned about how he’s being deluded by Mellitta and his sister’s beau, Wiggotschinski. This is in part because of his aforementioned youth versus Scottie’s age, his position as a naive young writer versus Scottie the seasoned detective, and Mellitta’s eagle-eyed focus on materiality versus the mystery that surrounds Judy’s actions and motives. The motivations in Phantom are clear, while those in Vertigo are a mystery.
As a result, Lorenz is someone the audience is likely to pity, while Scottie is someone the audience is apt to like at first and then turn away from once he meets Judy.
Once her true identity is revealed we’re led back to supporting the detective.
Lorenz also takes a subordinate position relative to Mellitta and is willing to betray his morals and his aunt’s trust in order get the money needed to keep Mellitta around while Scottie takes the lead and makes Judy do things she says she doesn’t want to do. Both characters are using the female characters to satisfy their own ego albeit by different means.
Murnau’s direction here is exquisite using subjective shots to give us a look inside the main character’s psyche. (You can read a really good analysis of this in German and use Google Translate to convert it to English if needed). While Hitchcock gives us the king of all subjective shots with his much admired and mimicked dolly zoom of the stairwell (aka the Vertigo Effect).
Despite using similar scenarios and techniques each director takes the audience to opposite corners with Murnau playing them for comedy and melodrama and Hitchcock giving us one of his darkest films. Both are fascinating, and worth a first or even a second, third, or fourth look.