I saw the German silent epic THE LOVES OF PHARAOH (1922) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Saturday night with extremely high expectations. Unfortunately, while the film itself was stunning, the overall experience was not.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch before he emigrated to the U.S. and became a master of light comedy, this decidedly non-comic tale of an Egyptian king (future Academy Award winner and Nazi propagandist Emil Jannings) who falls under the thrall of an escaped slave girl (Dagny Servaes) existed in only fragments and was thought lost for decades. The film recently underwent an extensive, five-year digital restoration process, performed by Alpha-Omega in Munich, the same firm that produced the recent, definitive restoration of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927).
A 35 mm print from the German Federal Archives and an Italian nitrate print from the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York were scanned at 2k resolution, and supplemented with 16 mm outtakes discovered at the Munich Film Museum. Approximately 25 percent of the picture remains missing, and has been replaced in this version with still images and explanatory text. The original tinting has also been restored and/or recreated. The bright red temple interiors, green hidden chambers, amber battle sequences, and pink sunrises all looked vibrant and gorgeous on the Harvey’s 35-by-19 foot screen.
New English language inter-titles and act slates have also been created for this version, but in a style that bears no resemblance to traditional silent film titles. I found these titles – in a modern, blue metallic font over a black background – extremely distracting. Each time one appeared it took me out of the mood of the film, and made it feel less like a restored, intact work of art. It looked as though somebody was trying to jazz up an old movie, and make boring type less boring. It didn’t work for me, mostly because I don’t believe old movies need jazzing up.
The BAM screening was accompanied live by Numinous, an 18 piece “new music ensemble” performing an original score by composer Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. The ensemble featured a harp, xylophone, percussion, strings, brass, woodwinds, and two singers performing ethereal, chant-like vocals. During some battle scenes, the performers banged on their music stands to suggest cacophonous chaos. It was certainly the most eclectic accompaniment I’ve ever heard for a silent, and I found it to be oddly effective (and kind of spooky).
Whether or not there should have even been a new score composed for this film is worthy of debate. The original original score by composer Eduard Künneke is still extant, and a performance of it, conducted by arranger Frank Strobel, accompanies the Region 0 Blu-ray and DVD released by Alpha-Omega earlier this year. I didn’t complain when the Alloy Orchestra accompanied the restored METROPOLIS with their own score at the 2010 TCM Classic Film Festival, ignoring Gottfried Huppertz’s original score, so I can’t really complain about this. I will say, however, that promoting a work of cinema as a restoration of the creative vision of a “revered auteur,” and then choosing to entirely ignore his original music seems like selective auteurism.
The three-night run of THE LOVES OF PHARAOH marked the first-ever film screening in BAM’s Harvey performance space, formerly the Majestic Theater. Designed by architect J. B. McElfatrick, the Majestic opened in 1904 with a production of The Wizard of Oz. It originally seated more than 1,800 people, and played host to legitimate theater, Vaudeville, opera, dance and, beginning in 1942, film. After six decades as an active venue, the Majestic closed in 1968 and remained dormant until BAM acquired it in 1987.
The theater has undergone an odd renovation that makes the interiors appear ruinous, as if audience members had been invited to visit a decaying, abandoned theater. BAM’s website suggests the design of the space “creates a visceral bridge between the past and the future,” but to my uncultured eyes it felt like seeing a show in an active construction site. Seating has been reduced by half the original capacity, and is spacious and comfortable, but the unfinished vibe of the surroundings served as a further distraction – particularly after I had entered through a decidedly modern café in the lobby.
In the last few years I’ve seen literally dozens of silent movies with live accompaniment, at venues throughout the New York City area and in Hollywood at three editions of the TCM Film Fest. Nearly all of these screenings have been transcendent experiences, and have created in me a new respect and admiration for a cinematic art form I had previously ignored. But I didn’t experience the same type of near-religious euphoria at the screening of THE LOVES OF PHARAOH.
I think my biggest buzz kill on Saturday night came from the response of my fellow audience members. There was derisive laughter on numerous occasions throughout the screening, almost all of which came at moments that were not intended to be funny. And it wasn’t just random titters, it was full-throated laughter. I hate it when classic film purists anoint themselves as the behavior police, and audit other people’s responses to movies they love. But why should someone who enjoys silent movies pay good money to sit with a bunch of people who regard them as hilariously dated relics? This weekend alone I saw two silent screenings in New York City with live accompaniment, and could have attended a third. It’s not like BAM’s offering was the only game in town.
I suspect that the majority of people at the Harvey Theater on Saturday night were BAM regulars, rather than regular viewers of silent movies. If that’s the case, and if BAM was hoping to create an audience for screenings of this nature, I wish they had considered a different movie. Silent film fans will tell you that comedies are a great way to introduce new viewers to the art form. Horror films can work equally well, particularly at this time of year, because the tropes they used 80 years ago are basically the same as today’s. Silent dramas are a harder sell and, when a quarter of the story is missing and replaced by type and still pictures, it sure doesn’t help the case.
I understand the importance of this restoration, and appreciate that BAM chose to make it a featured program in their Next Wave Festival, but I think the audience would have been better served with a verbal introduction that established context. Brief remarks at the start of the screening could have set up the history of both the theater and the film, how both were lost for years and returned to former brilliance by dedicated, creative people who respect the past. I think this would have helped viewers set their perspectives to the proper wavelength, and better established the gravitas of what we were about to experience.
Regardless, I hope THE LOVES OF PHARAOH created some converts on Saturday night. And I hope those people come back the next time BAM shows a silent, and join me in cheering to drown out the laughter.
Note: This piece was originally published on October 23, 2012 at 2:33 a.m. EDT and updated at 1:40 p.m. EDT.