The Loves of Pharaoh (1922) movie poster

director Ernst Lubitsch
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Each year that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival rolls around, I eagerly look through the schedule to see what most tickles my fancy.  Usually, I’m picking and choosing, having neither time nor money (nor endurance) to sit through the entire program (no matter how much I would like to).  This year, I scheduled three in a row for Friday and took the day off.  After watching Little Toys (1933), it was time for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh.

Lubitsch is a name that I’m very familiar with, but not actually a director whose films I’ve actually seen.  I’ve had them in my rental queue for years no doubt, but from his classic American films to his prior German films, I’ve never seen any, famous or obscure.  The Loves of Pharaoh comes from his German years, though the film was actually financed by Hollywood with the intention of bringing it and him there as Hollywood culled the European filmmakers of the day.

Once considered a “lost” film, it played at the Castro in a digital reconstruction, which looked amazing.  For all its reconstruction, the film is still missing about 10% of its footage.  While the print reconstructed these missing scenes with intertitles and still images (when available), it actually made for a significantly diminished experience.  The film is an epic, with massive sets and a cast of hundreds (maybe thousands), including star Emil Jannings.  And while it’s still very instructive to see the film, it’s hurt by its broken rhythms and “lost” sequences.

The epic drama at times builds to dramatic moments, some of which exist, some of which are simply explained.  This is what it is.  Film preservationists have for years been cobbling together these lost films, masterpieces or not, finding pieces of usable footage in one place, another in another, working from shooting scripts, whatever documentation that they have available to put the thing together as completely and as true to its original form as possible.  For historians like Kevin Brownlow, who has dedicated much of his life to this kind of work, it’s a nearly eternal process.  Even the versions that I’ve seen in recent years of Napoléon (1927) and Metropolis (1927) both suffer still from missing much of their original breadth.  And who knows whether they will ever get any closer to their original states than now.

For The Loves of Pharaoh, the breaks and missing elements suck away at the film’s potential power.  Perhaps if I was better familiar with Lubitsch I could better appreciate what was on screen rather than purely yearning for that which was not, but such was the case.  It’s an epic about a selfish Pharaoh who falls in love with a slave girl who belongs to the king of Ethiopia (a rather embarrassing Paul Wegener (The Golem (1920) dressed in a crazy African get-up.)  It’s certainly enjoyable enough and entertaining but it’s a lot harder to fully appreciate without its missing parts or without enough context to override them.