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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Tartuffe
Kino // Unrated // November 11, 2003
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted February 17, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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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 know for.

The DVD:


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.

The Extras:

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.

Final Thoughts:

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.

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