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Dagny Servaes




Also known as "The Wife of the Pharaoh"


Ernst Lubitsch-Film, 1922.  Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  Camera:  Alfred Hansen, Theodor Sparkuhl.  With Emil Jannings, Harry Liedtke, Dagny Servaes, Paul Wegener, Lyda Salmonova, Albert Basserman, Friedrich Kühne.

I viewed an incomplete print of 'The Wife of the Pharaoh' that was reconstructed (from several sources) by Stephan Droessler of the Film Museum in Munich.  Even in remnant form, this is a phenomenal film:  an epic piece of film-making, with 6,000 extras and elaborate sets.  The Wife of the Pharaoh is the nearest Ernst Lubitsch came to making a film like Metropolis.

The Wife of the Pharaoh was released in 1922, the same year that Englishman Howard Carter unsealed Tutankhamen's tomb.  But at this time, much of the most important work in Egyptology was being done by Germans, and German interest in ancient Egypt was high indeed.  This film is set in dynastic Egypt (Middle Kingdom, by the look of it).  The sets, costumes, and props are vastly more convincing than anything done by Hollywood in this same era in films such as King of Kings, Noah's Ark and the Babylonian sequences of Intolerance.

There are, of course, a few errors in this movie:  the elaborate Double Crown symbolizing the two kingdoms of Egypt is the proper size and shape, yet the actors heft it about so easily that it's clearly a prop made from some improbably light substance.  The Pharaoh receives papyrus scrolls bearing messages written in hieroglyphics; this is wrong (the messages would have been written in hieratic, and the King would probably require a scribe to read them on his behalf), yet somebody made a commendable effort to use the proper hieroglyphics—which is more than Universal Studios bothered to do in any of those 1930s mummy flicks.

Emil Jannings gives an operatic performance as the (fictional) King Amenes.  The king of the Ethiopians (Paul Wegener), hoping to make peace with Egypt, offers his daughter Theonis to become the wife of Amenes.

But Theonis falls in love with Ramphis, the handsome son of the king's advisor Sothis.  Ramphis wears a hairdo stolen from Prince Valiant—one of the few really ludicrous errors in this film.  Amenes sentences the lovers to death, then offers to spare Ramphis from execution (sentencing him to hard labour for life) if Theonis will consent to love only Amenes.

There are some truly spectacular scenes in this film, very impressive even in the partial form which I viewed.  Paul Wegener gives a fine performance as Samlak, king of the Ethiopians, but he looks like he escaped from a minstrel show.  To portray an Ethiopian, Wegener wears blackface and body make-up, and a truly terrible Afro wig.  Also, since his daughter Theonis is presumably also an Ethiopian, why is she white?

There are fine performances by Lyda Salmonova as a (white) Ethiopian slave girl (the nearest equivalent to Aida in this operatic story) and by Albert Bassermann as the advisor who is spitefully blinded at the Pharaoh's order.  Theodor Sparkuhl's camera work is superlative, as always, and the art direction is brilliant.   Although I viewed only an incomplete version of this film, I've read a surviving screenplay; the script (with some lapses in logic) is definitely the most ludicrous part of this film.  But the favorable aspects of this movie very definitely outweigh its flaws.  I'll rate The Wife of the Pharaoh 9 out of 10.

Theonis is the slave
—not the daughter— of King Samlak (which is why she is white).  The name of Samlak's daughter who is offered to the Pharaoh is Makeda.  (clarifications courtesy of Raquel).

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