The Loves of Pharaoh

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Year: 1922
Rating: 7.0
Country: Germany

During the silent film years, Germany had one of the most impressive film industries in the world with directors like Robert Weine, Fritz Lang, Murnau, Pabst and Ernst Lubitsch making some astonishing films that broke all the rules of what was happening in Hollywood. All of these directors were to leave Germany except for Pabst either for the glamour of Hollywood or to escape the rise of Nazism.

Lubitsch was to move to Hollywood right after directing this film in 1922, but he left a fine film legacy behind him in Germany. His work in Germany was quite varied – he had yet to develop what became known as the “Lubitsch Touch” in his droll sophisticated romantic Hollywood comedies – as he made films as light and delightful as The Doll and The Oyster Princess, historical dramas like Anna Boleyn and Madame DuBarry, gender breaking comedies like I Don’t Want to be a Man that certainly showed early hints of the “Lubitsch Touch”, horror such as The Eyes of the Mummy and here he made an epic historical film with large sets, great melodrama and enough extras to fill the Super Bowl.

A number of Lubitsch’s German films have been lost and this one nearly so – it was patched together using a few battered prints and photos and still some 20% of the film is estimated to be missing – and making it even more difficult is the fact that when it was released it was done so in different versions to placate the home audience – thus in the USA the last act was pretty much cut out giving it a seeming happy ending. It isn’t. This restored version is the way Lubitsch meant it to finish.

The plot is fairly simple but the sets and cinematography are not, utilizing much of the technique from the silent period that has long gone by the wayside – the oversized gestures, the make-up to add expression, the use of light and shadow and the camera becoming a telescope for close-ups. Basically the son of the Pharaoh’s prime builder rescues a slave girl from the Ethiopian King who is travelling to Egypt to marry his quite unattractive daughter to the Pharaoh. But instead the Pharaoh sees the slave girl and falls madly in love with her- but she is love with her rescuer and he with her. This leads to war and tragedy.

What might be puzzling to modern audiences and speaks perhaps to changing taste or at least Germanic taste at the time is that the actress, Dagny Servaes, is something of a lump and the hero played by Harry Liedktke is a middle-aged man of no particular shape. He was a star at the time and sadly died in 1945 by Russian soldiers while trying to save a woman from being raped. Most famous though is the Pharaoh, played by Emil Jannings, who was a star in Germany and also won the first Academy Award for The Last Command in 1928 and then two years later played opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. After his foray into American films ended due to his accent he went back to Germany and became an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler. Which certainly takes him out of the running for me for anything.