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The most expensive production in Germany to date at the time of its release, Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of Pharaoh (1922) remains an impressive example of the historical melodramas that transformed Lubitsch into a worldwide box office force during the early 1920s before his move to Hollywood. In fact, it was not the first time that Lubitsch had explored Egyptian themes, though his earlier thriller The Eyes of the Mummy Ma (1918) was set in contemporary Egypt instead. And while The Loves of Pharaoh was a German production, Paramount supplied the financial backing that enabled Lubitsch and his crew to work on the scale that they envisioned. As a result of this partnership, the film actually opened in New York before Germany. (The New York premiere took place on February 21, 1922.)
The original German title for the film is Das Weib des Pharao, which translates literally as "The Pharaoh's Wife." While articles in American film industry trade papers of the era initially called the film The Pharaoh's Wife, by the time of its release it bore the more sensational title by which it is known today. American ad copy for the film further promoted the angle of romantic competition, proclaiming, "They knew how to live and love!" Other Lubitsch films from the period underwent similar title changes for their American release; thus Madame DuBarry (1919) became Passion and Anna Boleyn (1920) became Deception.
The script was written by Norbert Falk and Hanns Krly, two of Lubitsch's most trusted collaborators during the silent era. The stage and costume design was by Ernst Stern, a theatrical designer who worked with the renowned director Max Reinhardt at Berlin's Deutsches Theater. Stern first met Lubitsch while the latter was working as an actor in Reinhardt's company. However, Lubitsch did not engage Stern as a designer until The Wildcat (1921), after he had already become established as a director. Considering Stern's longtime interest in Egyptology, the project was a natural fit.
In his memoirs Stern recalled of the production: "There was no difficulty about finance, as we were working for American backers. It was still the inflation period and even a single dollar was quite a lot of money, so we had no time-robbing financial calculations and we went to work cheerfully with a 'Damn the expense' outlook." For the palaces of ancient Egypt, the crew constructed full-scale replicas in the Steglitz suburb of Berlin; the film's sandy expanse was a sand quarry known informally as "Goshen," in the Mark Brandenburg district outside of Berlin. The high unemployment in Germany at that time undoubtedly made it easier to attract the thousands of extras needed, although at one point during the production, according to Stern, the extras attempted to go on strike for higher pay.
If Stern later dismissed the script for The Loves of Pharaoh as "preternaturally feeble," many critics had no such reservations during the film's American release. The New York Times called it a "magnificent production and stirring testimony to the genuineness of the genius of Ernst Lubitsch," comparing its photography to the best American films. Film Daily called it "probably the finest foreign spectacle as yet shown in this country," singling out Lubitsch's direction of the crowd scenes for praise. Similarly, the Los Angeles Times characterized it as "the best foreign picture we have seen here, and one of the most thoroughly artistic, foreign or domestic."
The Loves of Pharaoh was long considered to survive only in a very fragmentary state. The current restoration originated in 2003 when Enno Patalas, the film curator at the Munich Filmmuseum, acquired a nitrate print with Russian intertitles from the Gosfilmofond archive in Moscow. He combined this with materials from a French archive and rediscovered Italian print kept at the George Eastman House. To reconstruct the original order of the surviving footage, Patalas consulted the script, production stills, censorship notes, and the film score by Eduard Knneke. Alpha-Omega, the German firm behind the acclaimed 2010 digital restoration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), subsequently performed digital image restoration on the film. The restoration premiered on the ARTE channel in September 2011. Arguably the highlight is Eduard Knneke's original orchestral score, adapted and conducted by Frank Strobel. It stands out as one of the best original film scores of the silent era.
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Norbert Falk, Hanns Krly
Cinematography: Alfred Hansen, Theodor Sparkuhl
Art Direction: Kurt Richter, Ernst Stern
Music: Eduard Knneke
Cast: Emil Jannings (Pharao Amenes), Paul Biensfeldt (Menon), Friedrich Khne (Oberpriester), Albert Bassermann (Sothis), Harry Liedtke (Ramphis), Paul Wegener (Samlak), Lyda Salmonova (Makeda), Dagny Servaes (Theonis)
by James Steffen
Elliot, William Foster. "Approaches art." [Review of The Loves of Pharaoh] Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1922.
Eyman, Scott. Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Review of The Loves of Pharaoh. Film Daily, February 26, 1922, p.2.
Review of The Loves of Pharaoh. New York Times, February 22, 1922, p.22.
Stern, Ernst. My Life, My Stage. London: Gallancz, 1951.