An Ernst Lubitsch film that was lost for 80 years returns in full glory -- digitally restored from severely damaged original material and with a rerecorded original soundtrack. After its Berlin premiere a few weeks ago, The Loves Of Pharaoh (Das Weib des Pharaoh meaning "The Pharaoh's Woman") had its US premiere, aptly so, at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles last month. The return of a lost Lubitsch film is a major event in the film world, and especially in the United States, where Lubitsch established himself as one of the most prominent directors of his time. I was repeatedly reminded of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, as if the Italian master had seen this Lubitsch. As the 1922 NYT review rightly observes, the film is a spectacle on a never-before-seen scale but also the "intimately personal story of a human being." Critic Kurt Pinthus wrote enthusiastically: "Enormous marching troops, shadows, general mayhem of the masses -- all wonderfully exactly done, perfectly smooth in its execution, astounding in its swirling but clear movement." With Emil Jannings playing the lead of Pharaoh Amenes, Lubitsch had one of the great male actors of the time on his cast. Filmed on the southern outskirts of Berlin, Lubitsch built a huge Egyptian palace, an ancient Egyptian city location and a gigantic Sphinx in real-size scale, spectacularly emulating ancient Egypt. No expense was spared; the director clothed his actors in lavish costumes, employed thousands of extras and filmed battle scenes from a balloon.
The Ethiopian King Samlak offers his daughter Makeda to the powerful Pharaoh Amenes in order to secure peace between the two countries. What was intended as a political move ends as a debacle. Peculiar alterations were made to the original German version in the Russian, Italian and US release versions: The Russian version shows the Pharaoh as a tyrannical ruler; harsh and despotic. The Italian version, on the other hand, emphasizes the love-stricken, vulnerable Pharaoh. In the US release version, the return of the Pharaoh and the subsequent tragedy is omitted in favor of a happy end to satisfy the expectations of the US audiences. The Loves Of Pharaoh (1922) was Lubitsch’s last big production before he left Europe to continue his career in America; with this film he intended to finally convince Hollywood of his qualities as a director and the famous, undefinable "Lubitsch Touch".
Since no copy of The Loves Of Pharaoh was known to have survived, audiences were not able to see the film after the 1930s. Only after a tinted nitrate print was found in the Russian Gosfilmfond archive did restoration efforts begin. In 2004 another fragment of the film was found in an Italian version in the Roberto Pallme Collection, located at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The Italian and Russian release prints complemented each other in such a way that The Loves Of Pharaoh could be reconstructed nearly in its entirety (30 minutes that were in the original are still missing but are bridged with still photos and explanatory titles.). Image by image the original nitrate-based fragments were scanned with a high-resolution 2K film scanner and then digitally restored and retouched scene by scene. The striking colours of the original nitrate prints were recreated through digital tinting technology. Lubitsch had commissioned Eduard Künneke to compose an original music score for his film. Künneke presented a symphonic orchestra score that fortunately survives to a large degree. It was used to produce a new orchestral recording, adapted and synchronized to the restored film images.
Watch the trailer and read the NYT Review of 5 March 1922.
by Jutta Brendemühl, Goethe-Institut Toronto