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Review: F.W. Murnau’s Adaption of Molière’s Tartuffe on Kino Blu-ray

Murnau’s light-hearted, self-reflexive film gets a solid video upgrade and an illuminating commentary track.

3.5
Derek Smith

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Tartuffe

Although certain stretches of The Last Laugh and Sunrise amply display F.W. Murnau’s talent for constructing comedic sequences, his adaptation of Molière’s 1664 play Tartuffe was his first outright comedy. Lacking the melancholy and tragic underpinnings of Murnau’s most revered films, Tartuffe, perhaps inevitably, feels like a trifle by comparison. But its self-reflexive structure is cleverly used as a means of exploring the moral and sociological values of cinema—an art form that was still much maligned at the time of the film’s release—lending Tartuffe a rich subtext.

A year earlier, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. featured an early example of the film-within-a-film, positing cinema as a dream space to which we can bring our innermost hopes and desires and see them reflected back to us. Murnau’s use of this postmodern device is perhaps not as revolutionary as Keaton’s, but a similar thoughtfulness is on display in his portrayal of cinema’s deep connection to our subconscious impulses.

Murnau employs a framing device set in modern-day Germany to introduce the story, in which a filmed version of Tartuffe is eventually shown to convey the ubiquity and dangers of hypocrisy throughout time. In these bookend sequences, a two-faced housekeeper (Rosa Valetti) conspires to turn an old man (Hermann Picha) under her care against his grandson (André Mattoni) so that she may become the sole heir to his fortune. Catching onto her scheme rather quickly, the grandson dons a fake beard and returns to his grandfather’s house incognito, where he directly addresses the audience and announces that his weapon of choice to loosen the deceitful grip ahold of his grandfather is a traveling picture show.

Upon receiving the offer to have a filmed version of Tartuffe shown in her employer’s living room, the housekeeper yells, “We want no cinema!” It’s as if she were keenly aware that the flickering images may disrupt the spell she’s cast over her elderly target. Once the disguised grandson flatters her, though, he’s granted entry to the home—the first of many times in the film where false praise and fraudulent appearances are used as a means of exploiting others.

As the film-within-a-film begins to play and the scowling, falsely pious Tartuffe (Emil Jannings) arrives on screen, we learn that he has the wealthy Orgon (Werner Krauss) wrapped around his finger, and that he’s already fleeced him for large sums of money that were supposedly intended for charity. The parallels between the two narratives and the respective behaviors of Tartuffe and the housekeeper who’s watching his exploits on screen are perhaps a bit too glaringly obvious, but the inventive manner in which Murnau weaves both stories together, along with the buoyancy and cheekiness of the central performances, furnishes the film with a humor and wit that counterbalances its bluntness.

Late in the film, Orgon’s maid, realizing that Tartuffe is a conman and is about to force himself on Organ’s wife, Elmire (Lil Dagover), pleads with her master to peer through the keyhole, saying, “Look that ye may be cured.” Here, Murnau ties the simple act of seeing with the pursuit of deeper truths, cannily linking the theme of Molière’s comical tale of hypocrisy to that of the modern role of cinema. While there’s certainly an instructive quality to the film, as there is in Molière’s play, Murnau’s approach never succumbs to heavy-handedness. Instead, this adaptation remains both the playful condemnation of hypocrisy that Molière intended and a celebration of cinema as, ironically, its own form of deception, albeit one through which social and psychological truths can be revealed to the masses.

Image/Sound

The new digital restoration used for this transfer is a solid upgrade from previous standard-definition releases of the film. The picture quality is sharp most of the time, but there are a number of shots that appear a tad blown out, resulting in whites (tinted orange as per F.W. Murnau’s request) that flood out some of the details in the frame. Other flaws are fortunately far more minor, such as traces of debris, scratches, and the occasional flickering noticeable at the edge of the screen. Robert Israel’s new orchestral score sounds quite robust, beautifully mixed to highlight both the low-end instruments, like the French horn, and the higher-end ones, such as the frequently employed harpsichord.

Extras

Along with the recently restored 70-minute German release version of Tartuffe, Kino Lorber has also included the 64-minute U.S. release, which was the only version of the film available on home video until now. Although it’s presented only in standard definition, it’s in surprisingly good shape. Also included is a fascinating audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth, who covers an array of topics, including Murnau’s career and personal life and cinema’s reputation in the mid-1920s as a disgraceful art form and career choice—which is reflected both in Murnau’s name change in real life and the grandfather’s hesitance to allow a film to be shown in his home in Tartuffe. Howarth even delves into Murnau’s lost films, offering insight into everything from the frequently cited 4 Devils to lesser-mentioned titles such as Der Janus-Kopf, Murnau’s spin on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Overall

F.W. Murnau’s light-hearted, self-reflexive adaptation of Molière’s classic play gets a solid video upgrade and an illuminating commentary track on Kino’s new Blu-ray.

Cast: Emil Jannings, Hermann Picha, Rosa Valetti, André Mattoni, Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover, Lucie Höflich Director: F.W. Murnau Screenwriter: Carl Mayer Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 70 min Rating: NR Year: 1925 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video

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