Another great night with the Alloy Orchestra. Probably the number one advantage to living in Lincoln is that they come through every year with a different silent film – last year was Man with the Movie Camera, the year before was Son of the Sheik. Now I’ve bought their Phantom of the Opera on DVD, and I’ll see if I can sync the CD of their Lonesome score with the Criterion blu-ray – unlikely, but it’ll be fun to try.

Emil Jannings (same year as Tartuffe) is introduced as a sonofabitch who mistreats his woman, soon leaving her and their young child and running off with Lya de Putti (Murnau’s Phantom and the Joe May Indian Epic). They work circus acts until noticed by trapeze star Artinelli (Warwick Ward, who became a producer in the 1930’s) and asked to join his act. Artinelli easily steals away Emil’s girl while Emil spends all his time drinking and gambling (don’t trapeze performers have to stay in shape?), and when he realizes the betrayal he plots revenge. Some fun first-person shots from the trapeze were this film’s main attraction when it opened. Emil envisions his boss having a fatal “accident” – somehow he can’t bring himself to drop the guy, but is okay stabbing him to death

Ouch from Dave Kehr:

The blatancy that makes it so easy to teach is also its chief drawback as art. Expressionism needed the taste and insight of a Murnau to be transformed from a manner to a style; this film, untransformed, is the work of the negligible E.A. Dupont.

A much weirder movie than I’d expected. Emil Jannings seems drawn to humiliating roles. In The Last Laugh he was fired from his respectable job, laughed at by his neighbors. In The Last Command he has a shocking fall from military/government power, ends up a deflated Hollywood extra. But he’s never fallen further than he does here, from an esteemed professor to a cuckooing cuckold clown, crowing for a crowd.

Little pleasures of early sound films: I love that doors and windows are completely soundproof in this movie – closing one interrupts noise from the adjoining room suddenly and completely. On the other hand, the extreme strictness of employers in Hollywood movies has always bothered me. “I’m sorry friend, but you’ve left me no choice. I must request your resignation,” the principal tells Emil, because the kids made noise and drew on the board, and Emil had a flower in his lapel. And it’s the start of the Depression, so losing your job is a big thing.

Emil discovering Marlene:

Anyway, Emil tries to catch his giggling slacker kids at the local nightclub, as if it’s any of his damn business where they go after class. There he sees dancer Lola (Marlene Dietrich in her star-making role) and falls for her. Emil tries to whisk her away from this sordid life, but instead gets pulled into it himself. A few years later the touring troupe returns to the town where he once lived, and the townspeople flock to see the sad professor, after which he crawls back to his old classroom and apparently dies of shame.

I watched the English version – I think the German is more well-known. Remade a bunch of times, including once by the director of Porno Holocaust.

Sternberg turns in a more assured sound film here than Thunderbolt, though it was supposedly Germany’s first talkie. Acquarello: “Sternberg’s use of stark, hyperbolic imagery to symbolize moral degradation is derived from the German expressionist cinema. The Blue Angel was filmed during the Weimar Republic when the German government, caught in a stranglehold over war reparations, was on the verge of collapse. The film echoes the cynicism and hopelessness of the times.”

Another splendid Sternberg movie with an Alloy Orchestra score – how Criterion spoils us. It’s hard to fully embrace a movie with the dialogue “From now on you are my prisoner of war… and my prisoner of love.” But once I accepted the melodramatic story elements, this was almost the equal of Sternberg’s great Underworld.

Supposedly based on a real person, Emil Jannings is a powerful Russian general who escapes the country during the 1917 revolution (between this, Potemkin and Mother, Russian revolutions have been coming up often) and scrapes by in the U.S. as a Hollywood extra. This is not portrayed as a glamorous career path – note that The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was made in the same year. We’re also shown a bunch of resentful bastards at the studio costuming department, as if Sternberg and his writer were out to de-glamorize the movie-making process.

Directed by Michael William Powell:

Back in Russia, General Jannings (after his three great movies with Murnau, so already a star) clashes with young idealist revolutionary William Powell (with perhaps a thicker, less refined mustache than he sports in the Thin Man films). I was glad to see Evelyn Brent (Feathers in Underworld) again, and Sternberg and his photographer light her as ecstatically as before. She’s attached to Powell until taken prisoner by Jannings, eventually warming to him and helping him escape once the tables are turned. Later in Hollywood, Powell plans to shame the former general by casting him in a film that re-enacts his defeat, but the general gets too caught up in his nostalgic fervor and dies of a heart attack. Powell seems to forgive him after that, seeing that they both loved their country, just in different ways – which helps explain Evelyn’s split loyalties as well.

Evelyn Brent, revolutionary:

A. Kaes for Criterion:

Von Sternberg seems to have been fascinated by Jannings’s acting style and persona and did not restrain them in The Last Command. Instead, he used the actor’s histrionic theatricality to explore the power of performance and filmic illusion themselves—a subject he would continue to mine for the rest of his career.

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.


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.


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.