- The Loves of Pharaoh (1922) movie review: A restored – though still incomplete – version of Ernst Lubitsch’s last German feature disappoints as a cinematic spectacle. On the (maybe) bright side, this ancient Egypt melodrama of power, lust, and revenge does give Emil Jannings the chance to ham it up.
The Loves of Pharaoh movie review: Starring a hammy Emil Jannings, Ernst Lubitsch’s final German release is disappointing ‘epic cinema’
Ernst Lubitsch’s final German release before moving to Hollywood, The Loves of Pharaoh exists only in truncated form (about a fifth of the film remains missing), with stills and title cards inserted into the lost footage.
Starring future Best Actor Academy Award winner and frequent Lubitsch collaborator Emil Jannings (The Eyes of the Mummy, Passion, The Patriot, etc.), this ancient Egypt-set epic was screened at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The Loves of Pharaoh tells the story of the evil, lustful, and fictional Pharaoh Amenes (Emil Jannings), who suffers from a serious case of unrequited love for the Greek slave girl Theonis (Dagny Servaes), who loves the gallant Ramphis (Harry Liedtke), who, for his part, is being kept prisoner in a rock quarry. Pharaoh Amenes eventually makes Theonis his Queen, but she manages to avoid getting in bed with him.
In addition to his conjugal woes, the pharaoh must deal with political problems at the southern border: The Ethiopian King Samlak (Paul Wegener) wanted his daughter, Princess Makeda (Lyda Salmonova), to become the Queen of Egypt. Adding insult to injury, Theonis used to be Makeda’s slave. Outraged, Samlak orders his army to invade Ethiopia’s northern neighbor.
While all this is happening, Ramphis escapes from prison to claim Theonis as his own.
Written by two regular Ernst Lubitsch collaborators at that time, Norbert Falk and Hanns Kräly (who would continue his association with Lubitsch throughout the 1920s – Three Women, So This Is Paris, The Patriot, etc.), The Loves of Pharaoh is so reminiscent of Verdi’s Aida that the organ score, played by the accomplished Dennis James, brought to mind musical themes from that 1871 opera.
Besides this classic pedigree going for it, The Loves of Pharaoh also taps into popular notions of ancient Egypt that captured the public’s imagination when King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered later in 1922. And let’s face it, whether factual or not, tales of ancient Egypt remain of interest to a great many people.
Stellar scenery chewer, detrimental blackface
As for the cast, Emil Jannings must have had it in his contract to include at least one overemotional scene in each of his pictures. This isn’t to find fault; I think Jannings was a marvelous actor, even when he was over the top.
Paul Wegener – who plays King Samlak in blackface – has also always interested me. But in this case, he is given little to do but scowl while looking ridiculous in that make-up.
Ernst Lubitsch has earned a great reputation for his Hollywood films – Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Love Parade, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait, etc. So it was of great interest to see what he had done in Germany in the years prior to his arrival in the U.S.
Curiously, even though Lubitsch had already directed major productions – Passion was set at the time of the French Revolution; Deception was set during the reign of Henry VIII – several reports claim that The Loves of Pharaoh was supposed to prove he could do a spectacle with an enormous cast, sumptuous sets, and battle scenes.
And that’s where I was disappointed: In all, this “epic” film’s characters felt too cartoon-like, the static camera too confining, and the melodramatic scenario just a bit too uninspired.
The Loves of Pharaoh / Das Weib des Pharao (1922) cast & crew
Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
Screenplay: Norbert Falk & Hanns Kräly.
Cast: Emil Jannings, Dagny Servaes, Harry Liedtke, Paul Wegener, Albert Bassermann, Lyda Salmonova, Friedrich Kühne, Paul Biensfeldt.*
Cinematography: Alfred Hansen (as Alfred Jansen) & Theodor Sparkuhl.
Music: Eduard Künneke.
Art Direction: Kurt Richter & Ernst Stern.
Producer: Paul Davidson.
Production Companies: Ernst Lubitsch-Film | Europäische Film-Allianz (EFA).
Distributor: Europäische Film-Allianz (EFA).
Running Time: 100 min.
* According to Lotte H. Eisner’s The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, Mady Christians is also featured in an undetermined role. Besides, online sources list Elsa Wagner as a cast member.
“The Loves of Pharaoh (1922) Movie Review” endnotes
The Loves of Pharaoh reviewed at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (website).
The Loves of Pharaoh movie credits via the British Film Institute (BFI) website.
Emil Jannings The Loves of Pharaoh movie image: San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“The Loves of Pharaoh (1922) Movie Review: Emil Jannings Hams It Up in Uninspired Ernst Lubitsch Epic” last updated in September 2022.