A few of the most beautiful shadow-moments and one of the greatest monsters in all silent cinema hung around a flabby retelling of Dracula – it’s maybe my fifth-favorite Murnau film, but I was happy to watch it on the big screen with an excellent, tightly synchronized live band, Invincible Czars.
Tag: FW Murnau
A silly-ass mystery film with little of the grand style of Murnau’s later films. Also: the castle isn’t haunted, and it’s not a scary movie, and Kino knew that when they gave it that goth-expressionist cover art. All was forgiven when Julius Falkenstein of The Oyster Princess showed up, got scared and had a Nosferatu-prefiguring dream sequence.
D. Cairns already gave a terrific write-up of this movie last month, so there’s little I can add, except that the story revolves partly around a fake beard that I spotted the moment I saw it (then a close-up revealing the character’s “bald” head to be a cap confirmed that even in the film’s reality, this is a fake beard).
Plot concerns a count named Oetsch who comes uninvited to a hunting party at the Vogeloed castle, sits stewing in the corner while everyone gossips about how he murdered his brother the baron a couple years’ back. The brother’s widow, now remarried, is an invited guest, mostly stays in her room avoiding the count. Meanwhile a priest (the count with the fake beard) wanders about then disappears. Somehow this all makes the baroness’s new husband admit his guilt in the ex-husband-slaying, letting the count off the hook.
A pretty simple story. Charles Farrell goes to the city to sell the family wheat before the harvest, falls in love and marries Mary Duncan on his way home. Father on the farm is pissed about the low wheat price his son got, and is a huge grouch about Chuck’s lowly waitress wife. Storm is rolling in, destroying crops in other states, so Father works the reapers all night, but slimy Mac sees the family discord and aims to run off with Mary. She leaves, Chuck follows, Dad shoots at them, then everyone forgives everyone else and continues to harvest.
The city girl’s hair reminds me of the question-mark on the head of a guy in Sweetie, only in this case, hopefully unintentional, her forehead reads “666”
Chuck Farrell is his usual winning, unmemorable-looking self. I wasn’t sure about Mary Duncan in The River – she seemed a little one-note – but she’s wonderful here and extremely different from her River character. Seems like she could’ve gone further than Farrell’s usual sweet-faced co-star Janet Gaynor in the acting business, but Duncan retired in ’33, five years before Gaynor.
Murnau’s second-to-last film before Tabu. Murnau wanted to title it Our Daily Bread, and had scenes and scenery in mind which the studio denied him. The movie came out in a now-lost sound version and in a version similar to this – not sure exactly how similar, or how much is known about its history, but the booklet with the Masters of Cinema DVD would probably explain some things. Production-designed by Edgar Ulmer, and based on a stage play with a funny title which everyone online mentions as if it’s still important.
Murnau dwarfs the family, hunched at bottom of the frame when father first enters. The little girl, Anne Shirley, had been in pictures since she was four, would be oscar-nominated for Stella Dallas seven years after this.
The workers, L-R:
– Guinn “Big Boy” Williams of Lucky Star, here a pretty good guy with a pretty small part
– creepy-looking Jack Pennick of every John Ford film, whose only role here is to look creepy
– baddie Richard Alexander, who kept busy playing tough-guy extras for the next 30 years
Father: David Torrence is best known, well, for having a more famous brother. Ernest Torrence had some major silent roles (Steamboat Bill Sr., Captain Hook), played Moriarty in an early sound Sherlock Holmes the year before he died. David was in some Michael Curtiz films, anyway.
City Girl’s bond to Sunrise is one of its most fascinating elements. In its opening movements it is as if the film evokes a key plot element of Sunrise (an innocent country boy, Lem (Charles Farrell), is approached by a “vamp” on a train ride to the city) only to then diverge from and invert it (he immediately rejects her). As in Sunrise, the city is presented as a dynamic entity defined by and constructed around movement and a curious modernity; but it also projects a subtle desperation and palpably melancholy quality new to Murnau’s cinema. It is also the home of Kate (May Duncan), the “city girl” of the title who longs for a romantically idealised country life and who subsequently emerges as one of the strongest and most clear-eyed female characters in American silent cinema (presenting a clear reversal of the moral universe – and characters – of Sunrise). It is through Kate that we experience the continuity of the city and country in City Girl, the archetypes of perception and oppression, and the parallel social structures and prejudices that fuel both worlds.
Everybody mentions Days of Heaven as a comparison, and Danks throws in The Wind.
Grand duke Ramon of some little island (Abacco), not a thrifty fellow, is introduced throwing money into the water for diving natives, while his white-bearded treasurer Paqueno is taking a meeting about the island’s huge debts and given three days to repay them. I thought the rest of the movie would be between the duke and his finance guy, but white-beard disappears after he screws up in chapter four, replaced by a more charismatic character.
Meanwhile, a businessman named Bekker wants to buy part of the island to mine sulfur, which would clear the government debts but would turn this tropical paradise into a stinky sulfur pit, so the duke declines, leading Bekker to instead contact the local easily-located anti-government conspirators.
Bekker and the money man:
The Duke’s proposed way out of this mess is the love letter he’s received from Russian Crown Princess Olga, who wants to marry our duke despite her family’s objections. She finally heads to Abacco, “pursued by a descendant of Ivan the Terrible,” and bumps into…
Professor Philipp Collin, “a gentleman of changing names and professions,” our movie’s new hero! A master of disguise and trickery who has just broken into a blackmailer’s house and retrieved the purloined royal love letter (long story), he puts ugly old-woman makeup on the princess and pretends she’s his wife.
Lady and the duke:
The princess manages to marry our duke, Collin makes a fortune in bond trading through his inside-info on the royal goings-on, and Bekker and the conspirators are easily defeated after they try to hang the duke.
Amusing comedy, packed with plot left-turns, broken into chapters so it plays like a serial. A few exciting motion shots (camera scrambling onto land from a boat). Movie is much better than its title.
A Nazi collaborator made a sound remake ten years later, after Murnau’s death
Grand Duke Harry Liedtke, who’d appeared in early Lubitsch films, was killed at home by Russian soldiers in ’45. Professor Alfred Abel, star of Metropolis and Phantom, was also in a Sirk film and tried his own hand as director. Princess Mady Christians came to the U.S. in the 30’s, played in the remake of Seventh Heaven and portrayed an old Joan Fontaine in Letter From an Unknown Woman.
Walter Rilla (which one was he again?) fled the nazis in the 30’s, returned later and played in the 1960’s Dr. Mabuse pictures. Max Schreck, after Nosferatu and The Street, plays one of the conspirators (which one?)
My favorite intertitle:
I watched the 90-minute export version this time (with translated czech titles?). The main problem I usually have with Sunrise is that it’s too long for the Lambchop double-album I like to play with it, and the main problem with the 90-minute version is that it’s too short for the Lambchop album. Somebody needs to cut a version of Sunrise that is exactly the right length for the Lambchop album! Next time I’ll try the French DVD that has ’em pre-synched so I can see how they did it.
The marriage-threatening amoral woman from the city, Margaret Livingston, apparently specialized in broken-marriage films in the silent era, appearing in films named Married Alive, After Marriage, Wandering Husbands, Divorce and Alimony.
Male lead George O’Brien worked regularly with John Ford and after 1932 exclusively appeared in Westerns, ending his career with Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn in ’64. I think I like him better than Charles Farrell.
Pig in the city:
Trouble: this would be a nice movie to watch again sometime, since I was falling asleep and not paying close attention, but it’d be a nice movie to not watch again since I didn’t enjoy it much. What to do, what to do?
Lorenz Lobuta is a regular doof, a failed poet with a rich aunt, until one day he is run over by a carriage carrying a gorgeous rich woman. After that, he’s fixated on the rich woman, vows to find and marry her, but he never does, never even speaks to her again. During this time he becomes a huge asshole and a naive nutbag and we’re expected to sympathize with his obsession, I think, but after he gets in league with a scummy dude, rips off his own aunt, then gets caught breaking into her house and sent to jail, all I could think was “good” and “finally!” Oh also he meets a girl who looks just like the rich woman (same actress) but that part confused me – I must have nodded off when they explained she was two different people. Whole thing sits inside a framing device, but not one as worthwhile as in Tartuffe. Lorenz eventually (after prison) marries the bookstore girl who always pined for him and stuck with him through his stupidity, and the main story represents the journal he writes to ease his past-haunted mind.
German star Lil Dagover (Tartuffe) plays the wife. Lorenz is Alfred Abel, who appeared in Murnau’s comedy The Grand Duke’s Finances and Lang’s Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. Rich aunt Schwabe, Grete Berger was in some Lang movies as well, and the phantom double-role girl was in Murnau’s Burning Soil.
Watched the DVD bonus that explained how Murnau and his crew pulled off the weird visual effects (ghostly carriage knocks our man down, buildings’ shadows seem to follow him, one crazy dream sequence). Not a lot of trickery in this movie, but what trickery it had was very finely done. Just checked to see what wonderful things D. Cairns said about this, but I forgot he doesn’t have a copy, damn.
One of my new favorite movies, utterly beautiful images with a stunning restoration on the MoC DVD. I was sure that this movie would be exoticizing the islanders enough to make it unwatchable around Katy, but I showed it to her anyway, and it turned out pretty well for us.
Matahi and Reri are in love, when a ship bearing aged messenger Hitu arrives with a note saying Reri is to be sent to another island and kept as their sacred virgin. So Matahi runs away with her, washing up on a capitalist island where they live peacefully for a while, Matahi not realizing that he is running up a massive debt because nobody ever explained the money system to him. When he sees that they won’t let him leave, he braves the shark-infested waters to find a valuable pearl that will buy their freedom, but while he’s gone Hitu takes Reri, and Matahi drowns chasing after their boat. Sad movie!
Tidbits from the very good commentary by R.D. Smith and “the” Brad Stevens: Robert Flaherty directed and shot the opening fishing scene, then Murnau removed him from the project, finding his direction of drama unsatisfying. Floyd Crosby (would go on to shoot tons of MST3K fare and X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes), who worked with Flaherty on White Shadows in the South Seas, took over the camera. Story is a retelling of the Garden of Eden myth. Visual motif of descent grows increasingly darker. Contrast between motion and stillness. Islanders paddling furiously towards giant ship, their vibrant humanity vs. the faceless ship (called Moana!) which seems from afar to be guiding itself, on which sits Hitu, surrounded by stillness. The ship brings a spreading plague as surely as the one in Nosferatu. Heterosexual couple threatened by a powerful individual, theme present in most Murnau movies – in this case, central relationship is more sexual + physical than in the others. Tabu is unprecedented in Murnau, having a character attempt to oppose fate – unsuccessfully, “gives the film much of its tragic quality.” When they escape to the larger island and meet white-influenced civilization, similar to the pure-country vs. corrupt-city themes in Sunrise and City Girl. Murnau didn’t like intertitles, used none in this movie except for diegetic writings, all of which hold negative connotations.
Related, should try to find sometime: Island of the Demons / Black Magic by Walter Spies and Friedrich Dalsheim.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Watched the German version with orchestral score. Movie made me feel ten feet tall, with wings. Score is nothing to worry about, I turned the volume down… will have to try the harp score next time. Brilliant, full of harsh angles and crazed effects and loopy overacting. Presence! The movie booms with exclamation points! Guy Maddin must love it.
An angel stupidly bets the devil (err, Emil Jannings as Mephisto) that he can’t corrupt humanitarian scientist Faust (a swedish actor who died of pneumonia in the late 30’s), with the world at stake. Emil first brings a badass plague, then allows Faust the power to cure a few people to make him feel like he’s all good. Then, the devil offers Faust youth so he can lust after some very white young woman (Camilla Horn, who acted through the late 80’s). Faust never really gets the girl, though he sleeps with her once… then is blamed for killing her brother and flees on his magic carpet. The girl’s mother dies, she’s put in the stocks, has a baby, loses it homeless in the snow because nobody will help her, then is burned at the stake accused of killing her own child. Faust hears her cry for help at the last minute, holds her and they die in the fire together. Faust goes straight to hell but for some reason the world is saved?
Emil is awesomely sinister. Movie is a visual delight, a story well told, everything a movie should be. Will have to check out the commentary, the harp score, the export version, etc etc.