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A Lost ‘Pharaoh’—Found

A Lost ‘Pharaoh’—Found

The archeologists who extracted artifacts from King Tut’s Tomb couldn’t have been any more excited than the movie lovers who witnessed the rebirth of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh Tuesday night at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, on the exact date of the movie palace’s 89th anniversary. Piecing this 1922 silent film epic back together has been a formidable project for German film preservationist Thomas Bakels of Alpha-Omega, who told me it was even more difficult than restoring Metropolis! It took five years to complete the digital reconstruction and clean-up, even after the Munich Filmmuseum had gone through the laborious process of combining elements of prints from around the globe.

All I can say is, it was worth the wait. Incomplete prints have existed for years, with key differences depending on where it was first released: the American version had a happy ending, the Italian interpretation focused on the love story while the Russian release all but eliminated it. I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t possible to fully appreciate the movie’s imposing beauty, scope or dramatic impact until now. Not only is it an impressive production, with crowd scenes and desert battles to rival C.B. DeMille; it also excels at—

Emil Jannings as the proud Pharaoh Amenes. Look at that awful sprocket damage! (all images courtesy Alpha-Omega digital GmbH)

—telling its grandiose story, even if some of the performances are operatic in style. The screenplay is credited to Norbert Falk, whose career petered out by the early 1930s, and Hanns Kraly, who accompanied Lubitsch to Hollywood and wrote, or co-wrote, some of his best American silent features, including So This is Paris and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.

It would be difficult to imagine a more powerful screen presence than Emil Jannings as the imperious Pharaoh Amenes, who is completely self-absorbed and has no regard for his people. (He’s much more interested in his majestic new treasury building.) It is only when he meets the Greek slave girl Theonis (Dagny Servaes) that he succumbs to that most human condition: falling hopelessly in love. But she has no feelings for him, as she is devoted to the man who freed her, Ramphis (Harry Liedtke).

Two familiar actors fill out the leading cast. Paul Wegener, immortalized as The Golem, plays Samlak, the egotistical king of Ethiopia, who comes to Egypt to offer his daughter to Amenes as part of a peace proposal and, when rebuffed, declares war. Albert Bassermann, who fled Germany during the Nazi era and became a familiar character actor in such films as Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, plays Sothis, the Master Builder who has engineered Amenes’ Sphinx-like treasury.

This might seem like foreign turf to Lubitsch, the master builder of sophisticated comedy, but he had tackled historical subjects before, if not on this enormous scale. With its original tints restored, and projected on the gigantic Egyptian Theatre screen, it made a strong impression on an audience that included the director’s daughter Nikola Lubitsch and her daughter Amanda.

Robert Israel conducted the original score commissioned by Lubitsch and written by opera composer Eduard Künneke. Originally intended to be performed by a 60-piece symphony, it still sounded good in reduced form. Robert told me he only had three run-throughs with his 16-piece ensemble, and while it may not have been a note-perfect performance, it was quite effective. The sustained audience applause acknowledged both the film itself and Israel’s lively accompaniment.

A dramatic example of before and after restoration: look what Thomas Bakels had to work with and look at the results.

As Susan King reported in the Los Angeles Times that day, the restoration of The Loves of Pharaoh was no small matter. “Part of the footage came from a 35mm tinted nitrate print of the movie that the German Federal Archives had acquired in the 1970s from a film archive in Russia in a trade for original footage it had of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterwork, Battleship Potemkin.

“ ‘The Federal Archives here approached us in 2003 with two reels of Pharaoh and said, ‘What can be done? It is not scannable, it is not printable and this is the last surviving element,’ recalled Bakels. The Russian footage lasted only 55 minutes and was missing all the scenes dealing with love and emotion. This version revolved around massive combat sequences. ‘It was in horrible shape,’ noted Bakels. ‘One of the biggest problems with Pharaoh was the perforations [on the negative] were missing all over the place.’

“Bakels extended the Russian version with footage from an Italian nitrate print of Pharaoh that the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., had acquired in 1998. Though the Italian print had been ‘chopped into pieces,’ it contained the missing love scenes. To this was added other footage, as well as the picture’s title cards, that had shown up unidentified in film cans during the Munich Film Museum’s restoration work on another movie.”

It’s only now in the digital era that instances of dirt on the print (or negative) can be removed, as amateurs do with snapshots on their computers…but when you’re dealing with 16 to 24 frames per second, the amount of time involved is prodigious!

All of this would have been wasted effort if the finished film weren’t so compelling, and significant. It was Lubitsch’s final production in Germany before moving to Hollywood and launching the next phase of his glorious career.

I am happy to report that The Loves of Pharaoh will be released on Blu-ray and DVD in the near future so film buffs everywhere can share in this discovery…but I’m awfully glad I saw it with a live orchestra at the Egyptian.

By the way, happy birthday to Sid Grauman’s movie mecca, and continued congratulations to the American Cinematheque, which runs it with such loving care.


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