Ernst Lubitsch is best known for his work in Hollywood, operating as a master of comedies until his death in 1947. He left behind a legacy of films that includes the much beloved likes of The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, Cluny Brown, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait, and Trouble in Paradise. Prior to making the transition to American filmmaking, Lubitsch operated in his native Germany. He enjoyed a great deal of international success, though some of this was for large-scale productions and dramas that would not be a prominent feature of his Hollywood career. One of these films was The Loves of Pharaoh, or Das Weib des Pharao, a historical epic rivaling Metropolis in terms of ambitious German silent cinema, and Lubitsch’s last film made in the country. Incomplete prints of the film have existed for years, but the recent restoration now available is as close as preservationists have yet come to piecing together the full product.
Starring Emil Jannings, the man who would later become the very first recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor, the film concerns an Egyptian pharaoh who must marry the daughter of the Ethiopian king in order to prevent war between the two regions. Complications arise when the pharaoh’s advisor, Ramphis, begins to fall in love with the Ethiopian king’s beautiful slave girl, for whom the pharaoh also possesses longing. Humiliated by the rejection of the arranged marriage when pharaoh Amenes selects the slave girl to instead be his wife, the Ethiopians declare war on the Egyptians, while Amenes seeks to separate the bond between his new wife and Ramphis.
The film contains a curious blend of the bold, theatrical brand of acting of the era and some occasional naturalistic flourishes. Jannings is a towering, powerful screen presence, his eyes being put to particularly good use in a performance that alternately portrays cruelty, stasis, and a lovelorn state. The film’s monumental sets and cast of thousands leave the biggest impression. Huge pyramids, statues and temples, combined with lavish costumes and set dressings, provide a great design aesthetic; beautiful camerawork and lighting are also strong attributes.
As opening title cards state, about 600 metres of film of The Loves of Pharaoh remains missing or unusable. Artefacts of the time inform the narrative affected by those missing moments, and title cards and production photos frequently take their place. Much of the footage that remains – and the footage far outweighs those photo and card substitutes – has been beautifully restored. While not one of Lubitsch’s best films, it is a fascinating document for fans of the director to witness, as well as for enthusiasts of epic filmmaking. Much of what is presented here could certainly have been a major influence on films like Cecil B. DeMille’s version of Ben-Hur, and The Loves of Pharaoh is a worthwhile big screen experience for anyone who has the chance to see it in such a way.
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