The first direct film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra was created neither in Leroux’s native France nor in nascent Hollywood, but rather in Germany, the birthplace of silent horror cinema, which flourished from the 1913 release of Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) through the Weimar era with such classics as Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).
Also known as Das Gespenst im Opernhaus (The Ghost in the Opera House), Das Phantom der Oper was shot during the First World War, when the German government had prohibited the screening of foreign films. This stimulated a booming domestic film industry, whose prolific output had little regard for matters of copyright (like Nosferatu, which was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Das Phantom der Oper was filmed without obtaining the motion picture rights). It also led to the development of a national expressionist style indebted to the theatre of Max Reinhardt, whose innovative stage and lighting designs inspired ‘many a German director of photography to breed shadows as rampant as weeds and associate ethereal phantoms with strangely lit arabesques or faces’. Since the director of this early Phantom, the Hungarian-born Ernst Matray, was a veteran of Reinhardt’s theatre, there is little surprise that the Kinematographische Rundschau, Austria’s first specialist film journal, made special note of the ‘gloomy lighting’ used to create ‘magnificent images’.
Unfortunately, we are unlikely ever to enjoy these chiaroscural effects for ourselves, since, like many other motion pictures of its time, this film is considered lost and no copies are known to survive. From the synopsis provided in the Kinematographische Rundschau, though, we can ascertain that the screenplay, penned by Matray’s wife, Greta Schröder (who would go on to play the female lead in Nosferatu), was remarkably faithful to Leroux’s novel, even more so than Universal’s 1925 attempt. Whereas in that picture, Lon Chaney’s Phantom is revealed to be an insane escapee from Devil’s Island, this version retains the Opera Ghost’s background as one of the architects of the opera house, explaining how his subterranean hideaway came to exist. Other details from Leroux’s plot, from the allegorical use of Gounod’s Faust to the mirrored torture chamber, also survive, although the published synopsis makes no mention of any falling chandelier. Especially noteworthy is the retention of the character of the Persian, a key figure in Leroux’s novel absent from most cinematic adaptations of the tale, and played in this film by the director Matray himself. The principal deviation from the original novel here is the lack of any redemptive kiss for the Phantom, who, shortly after Christine’s rescue, perishes in a climactic underground explosion caused by a blocked ventilation shaft in the theatre’s boiler room.
The Kinematographische Rundschau’s review that Matray’s film was of ‘outstanding quality’ was echoed by many contemporary reviewers. The trade publication Paimann’s Film-Listen praised the photography, acting, and scenery, while Vienna’s daily Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung particularly enjoyed how this film’s musical subject matter was ripe for exploitation by the accompanying orchestras at screenings. The verdict of the Teplitz-Schönauer Anzeiger, a newspaper for the German-speaking areas of the present-day Czech Republic, was that Das Phantom der Oper was an ‘effective film which, owing to its fantastical, mysterious storyline, shows particular originality’. We can only hope, then, that a copy of this lost adaptation, which simultaneously looked back to the musical Gothic fantasies of the Prussian author E. T. A. Hoffmann and forward to the technological modernity of the Weimar Republic, one day emerges out of the shadows.
© Raj Shah 2018. All rights reserved.
 Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 75.
 Kinematographische Rundschau, 14 May 1916, pp. 13-14 (p. 13). All translations from German are my own.
 Kinematographische Rundschau, p. 45.
 Paimann’s Filmlisten, 4 May 1916, p. 2.
 ‘Kino’, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, 7 July 1917, p. 4.
 ‘Lichtspiele’, Teplitz-Schönauer Anzeiger, 18 March 1917, p. 6.