Tartuffe (1925, FW Murnau)

A relatively minor, quickie film made between The Last Laugh and Faust. The essay in the DVD booklet tries to boost Tartuffe‘s reputation simply by putting its name alongside every other great silent film (cinematographer of Metropolis and Dracula! producer of the Nibelungen! writer of Caligari!) kinda like I do, except with an added sense of importance.

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A. Jacoby:

Molière’s polished cynicism seems a world away from Murnau’s romanticism, and the film is at first sight atypical – a fact which may explain its unjust neglect. In contrast with the evocative use of natural landscape in Nosferatu and City Girl or with the studio-built worlds of Faust and Sunrise, Tartüff is essentially an interior film, betraying its roots in neo-classical theatre with its setting confined to a single chateau. Likewise, the camera style displays a distinct economy compared to the extravagant tracking shots of Murnau’s then recent tour de force, The Last Laugh. Here, the only camera movements are pans: a stylistic decision which again imbues the film with an air of classical austerity.

An undercurrent of homosexual implication is detectable as Tartüff replaces the countess in her husband’s affections. … In a brilliant mirror shot, Tartüff, on the verge of succumbing to temptation, resists when he catches sight of the watching count’s distorted reflection in a polished pot on the table. Though his overt motives are practical, there is a subversive visual hint that he is affected, rather, by the presence of his original object of desire.

The theme is made clearer in the modern framing story which Murnau added to Molière’s text. The main section ends, like Nosferatu and Sunrise, conservatively, with the reunion and celebration of the bourgeois heterosexual couple. The framing story inverts the trajectory: here, a young man uses Molière’s story to free his misguided elderly relative from the malign influence of his female housekeeper, so that the film ends with the celebration of masculine solidarity and homo-social bonds.

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You wouldn’t think that the forbidding Emil Jannings lookalike Rosa Valetti (above) would get many movie roles, but you’d be wrong – she was in a bunch of high-profile films including M and The Blue Angel. Werner Krauss, in the not-too-exciting role of the deceived Mr. Orgon, had early played Dr. Caligari himself, and would later play an evil jew in a nazi propaganda film – ouch. Jannings, who would do his most famous work for Murnau, and Lil Dagover (star of Destiny, The Spiders and Phantom), who were excellent here, both appeared in nazi progaganda films during WWII portraying the brilliance of Otto von Bismarck, leader of the second reich.

M. Bailey: “Murnau was wise enough to realize that silent cinema had no capacity to do justice to the acid wit of Molière’s flawless alexandrines (not a single line from the play remains intact in the film), so he made a special effort to ensure that the satiric humor was translated visually. This is accomplished through sprightly editing, comedic use of extreme close-ups, sight gags, and the arch performance (occasionally tipping over into hamminess) of Emil Jannings.”

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The Murnau Institute’s documentary included on the disc, with its illustrations and comparisons, is greater than any audio commentary could have been. Reminds me of that condensed, informative documentary on Letter From an Unknown Woman, also a British disc… maybe I should watch more of the doc supplements on my DVDs.

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