BFI London Film Festival 2012: ‘The Loves of Pharaoh’ review


When Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamen’s tomb back in 1922, a sensation swept the entire European continent, resulting in a great deal of public fascination towards all things Ancient Egyptian. It would be tempting to compare this discovery to the restoration of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh (thought lost for many years), but sadly all that glitters is not gold. Made by the German American director Lubitsch in 1922 as a demonstration to American studios of his capability for creating historical epics, the story concerns the romantic affairs of King Amenes (Emil Jannings).

In order to prevent a war breaking out with neighbouring Ethiopia, Amenes agrees to marry the King’s daughter. This plan goes awry when Amenes meets the Greek slave girl Theonis (Dagny Servies), a beauty who steals his heart, causing a rift between the two nations. In a pleasing Shakespearean-lite twist the situation is made all the more complicated by the presence of Ramphis (Harry Liedtke), with whom Theonis is truly in love with.

Lubitsch was best known for his comedies of manners rather than big budget affairs, yet with The Loves of Pharaoh he created a passable tale that is, at heart, an enjoyable historical farce with some lightly dramatic moments. The performances vary in quality, with Jannings successfully capturing Amenes’ greedy and jealous nature. There are also some interesting technical flourishes where the print has been tinted in an array of colours building the atmosphere of the scenes. This varies from blood red when Amenes is on screen, to a calming blue in the love story scenes.

The story itself borrows a little from the legend of Helen of Troy (although in this case Theonis doesn’t launch a thousand ships, instead it is a throng of marauding Ethiopians on chariots), and a little from Shakespeare’s better-known comedies. More fascinating, however, is the story of how we have come to be able to now view this once-thought-lost feature.

The original The Loves of Pharaoh print is still incomplete, with only 600 metres of the original 2976 remaining. Painstakingly pieced together from a series of archives, the restorers have had to resort to extra inter titles and still photographs to fill in the gaps. Inevitably, this breaks the atmosphere of the feature and creates some notable plot holes. Yet all credit to the archivists who should be commended for their noble efforts. The Loves of Pharaoh is an impressive example of cinema restoration, and for that alone it should be viewed and safe-guarded.

The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs from 10-21 October. For more of our LFF coverage, simply follow this link.

Joe Walsh