This DVD is part
of the F. W. Murnau Collection boxed set. Read the reivew of the
entire collection here.
After the great
success of The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau wanted to adapt Goethe's
story of Faust to the silver screen with Emil Jannings in the role of Mephisto.
But Jannings was under contract to act in Tartuffe. Studio
head Erich Pommer asked Murnau to direct the film while he was waiting
for Janning's schedule to free up.
Tartuffe is based on a play by Moliere, to which writer Carl
Mayer (who also penned The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as well as The
Last Laugh) added a framing device to make the movie more modern.
An old man (Hermann Picha) is ill and being tended to by his housekeeper
(Rosa Valetti.) She is slowly poisoning her charge, and has convinced
him that his only heir, a grandson (André Mattoni,) is living a
life of sin as an actor. The old man disinherits the grandson and
leaves his fortune to the maid. When the grandson comes to visit,
he is thrown out. As he walks from the house, he walks up to the
camera and says "You who witnessed this scene may rest assured that I shall
not give up without a struggle."
Applying a fake beard and wig, the young actor returns as a traveling
cinema projectionist. He flatters the housekeeper into inviting him
in, and proceeds to show the story of Tartuffe.
In this movie within a movie, a rich businessman Herr Orgon (Werner
Krauss,) returns from a long business trip to his wife Elmire (Lil Dagover.)
Orgon has changed though. He refuses to kiss his wife, saying that
his friend Tartuffe (Emil Jannings) considers kissing a sin. He has
the servants discard the painting and luxuries in a guest room to make
it ready for Tartuffe's arrival, and then fires all of them save one maid
(Lucie Höflich.) Tartuffe arrives, and is waited on hand and
foot by Orgon, who regards the strange man as a saint. Spending all
his time reading while pacing the house, Tartuffe notices Elmire, and starts
lusting after her. Elmire discovers that her husband has been slowly
giving away his fortune to this religious man, and hatches a plan to expose
his hypocrisy. Hiding her husband behind some curtains, she tries
to seduce Tartuffe. Just as he is about to fall into her trap, Tartuffe
notices Orgon's reflection in a silver decanter and leaves, saying that
he will pray for Elmire. Orgon is now more convinced than ever of
his friends holiness and plans to leave his entire estate to him.
Can Elmire find a way to make her husband see Tartuffe for what he really
is, and if so, will that have any effect on the old man and housekeeper
watching this movie?
This is a minor work of Murnau's, completed in just six weeks.
There is very little of the amazing camera work that was justifiably lauded
in The Last Laugh. It was a very minimalist work, with everything
pared down to the essentials. The sets were sparse, as was the number
of actors, even Moliere's play had two acts and many characters removed
from it. There are several scenes where action is implied rather
than shown. After Orgon's return home and refusal to kiss his wife,
he goes into a room and closes the door. Elmire enters moments later
and the camera stays on the closed door. Seconds later Elmire leaves
the room looking dejected. Murnau doesn't need to show the wife being
rejected a second time, it is evident.
One aspect that was interesting was the way the frame story and the
play were filmed. Each of the segments had a very different look.
The framing section was filmed very realistically manner, with all the
characters in sharp focus. The internal movie, was filmed in a much
more traditional style, in soft focus, and the film was tinted. This
contrast works well to differentiate the two story lines.
Clocking in at 63 minutes, Tartuffe is an interesting footnote
in Murnau's career, but not one of the great works that the director is
There is a two channel mono piano score by Javier Perez De Azpeitia
accompanying the film. The score is well suited to the action on
screen and does a good job of matching the mood. There are no other
sound effects added. The audio quality is very good. There
was no hiss of distortion.
There were three different master prints to Tartuffe, a domestic
German release, one for the United States, and a third for the rest of
the world. This DVD contains a restored version of the American print
that is held in the Library of Congress. The restoration team did
a good job. They were wise and left the original intertitles intact.
I hate when new title cards are inserted, there is always a glaring difference
between the pristine new titles and the old movie print. The picture
was very clear, had an excellent amount of detail, and the contrast was
very good. I didn't notice any missing frames, something that
occurs in almost all silent movies due to splices. I assume that
this print wasn't screened very often.
It wasn't a prefect print though. There was a good amount of speckling,
scratches, and dirt on the print, which was most evident in the dark scenes.
Thought the contrast was good overall, in some scenes the white highlights
were washed out, leading to a loss of detail. Even with these flaws,
a very good looking print.
In addition to the film itself, this DVD has an interesting 35 minute
documentary The Way to Murnau. This film looks at his life
and films with quotes from friends and relatives and clips from his most
important works. Though it does gloss over some areas, it is a good
overview of his life and work, and a welcome addition to this disc.
Tartuffe is not a major film, but one that
is worth watching. When compared to the films he did both before
and after this one, you can see that Murnau's heart wasn't really into
this production. The restoration was very good, and the movie is
very easy on the eyes because of it. After having seen more than
my share of badly preserved prints being transformed to home video, it
is a nice to see high quality material being released more often.
Taking into account that a mediocre Murnau film is still better than most
films, and the excellent documentary included as a bonus, this is easy
to give this DVD a recommended rating.