Thursday, October 18, 2012
Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of Pharaoh, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Another alert for the Siren's patient New York readers: On Oct. 18 through Oct. 20, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting the great Ernst Lubitsch's 1922 silent, The Loves of Pharaoh. Lost for many years, then thought to exist only in fragments, the movie has been painstakingly stitched back into close to its original form, and will be the inaugural screening for the BAM Harvey Theater's Steinberg Screen.
This is what you call a major film-preservation event.
The Loves of Pharaoh, says BAM, is being shown as part of its Next Wave festival, and will be accompanied "by the world premiere of a new score by Brooklyn-based composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr....to be performed live by his acclaimed 18-piece new music ensemble, Numinous."
The Siren has been told that The Loves of Pharaoh is not typical Lubitsch; instead it's a splendid eyeful of an epic. Any chance to see a large-scale silent movie on a big screen, accompanied by live musicians and a full score, is to be seized at all costs. So the Siren is attending tonight's performance; Comrade Lou Lumenick of the New York Post plans to attend later this weekend. The Siren urges her patient readers to turn out for this event as well.
Morning-after update: Since cherished commenter Rozsaphile brought up the score, and in case anyone is on the fence, the Siren thought she'd add a few off-the-cuff thoughts. Indeed this is not what you think of as Lubitsch, although there is plenty of panting sexual desire. It's magnificent-looking, though, particularly on the big screen in the beautiful Harvey Theater, which has been updated with its crumbling atmosphere intact.
The restoration is superb. Missing footage is replaced, when possible, with stills, and this works much better for the silent Loves of Pharaoh--they're a bit like pictorial intertitles--than it does for, say, Cukor's A Star Is Born, where the sudden intrusion of stills throws the Siren out of the movie, every time. According to Dave Kehr, the German unemployment situation in 1922 basically meant they could have all the extras they wanted, and the crowd scenes will blow your mind. Lubitsch could, like Griffith and DeMille, show the teeming sweep of an army or a mob while still giving a sense of the individuals within. Certain scenes--such as one set in the inner chambers of Pharaoh's treasury--are heart-stoppingly beautiful. The tinting is exquisite.
The Siren loves how Kehr describes the way things worked out, in terms of film history: "After “Pharaoh,” DeMille folded his style into Lubitsch’s for his first version of “The Ten Commandments,” while Lubitsch, in one of film history’s tidier paradoxes, turned away from costume pictures to DeMille-style sex comedies on his arrival in Hollywood." Loves is no comedy. Plot elements include torture, violence, child murder, maimings, and a downbeat ending. There are maybe two or three laughs that the Siren would characterize as intentional jokes. Otherwise the laughter in the audience was mostly at instances of actorly excess, and some unfortunate (to modern eyes) choices like the wig on Ramphis (Harry Liedtke). Emil Jannings gives his side-eye technique quite a workout, and also gets to do the Great-Man-Brought-to-Depths-of-Degradation scenes that the guy must have had written into his contract somehow. (The Siren's not a huge Jannings fan.)
This is where the new score comes in. It's strikingly modern, not a type of music the Korngold-loving Siren would have necessarily chosen. She thought it worked extremely well, however. Composer Joseph C. Phillips clearly took Loves of Pharaoh seriously and gave it music that played the emotions of the scenes straight, not campy. The score kept the audience focused, kept nervous titters to a minimum and complemented the emotions. You can't ask much more than that.
So you don't want to miss this, if at all possible. For those who can't make it to BAM, Loves of Pharaoh is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.