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. Instead of Makeda, Amenes chooses Samlak's beautiful slave girl Theonis. Nevertheless, Amenes can not secure the love of Theonis as she is in love with the young Egyptian Ramphis. Having suffered humiliation, the Ethiopians declare war on Egypt. Amenes is injured in a battle and perishes - but only seemingly. The happy union between Theonis and Ramphis is in peril when Pharaoh Amenes returns to claim his wife and his throne. Written by
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. He eventually loses his power as a result of his love for the beautiful slave girl. Presumably, this portrayal was not acceptable in Russia at the time and the film was edited accordingly. In the US release version the film ends with Ramphis's rise to power and the happy union between him and Theonis. The return of the Pharaoh and the subsequent tragedy is omitted in favor of a happy ending to satisfy the expectations of the US audiences. See more »
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) ... and 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 symbolising 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 adviser 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. And 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 adviser 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 ridiculous part of this film. But the favourable aspects of this movie very definitely outweigh its flaws. I'll rate 'The Wife of the Pharaoh' 9 out of 10.
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