Sunday, November 10, 2019
F. W. Murnau | Herr Tartüff (Tartuffe)
the bad dreams at home become real
by Douglas Messerli
Carl Mayer (screenplay, based on the play by Moliere), F. W. Murnau (director) Herr Tartüff (Tartuffe) / 1925
Director F. W. Murnau always recognized a good play which he might adapt to the screen, and Moliere’s Tartuffe from 1925 was clearly one of them, as was his next work for cinema, Faust. I use the word “cinema” here more emphatically than I usually mean it, for Murnau’s filmmaking, from the very beginning, was not only an attempt to take dreaming into the everyday lives of movie audiences, but to uplift them; to put their subconscious joys and fears into a near delirious mix of imagination and spiritual uplift.
Using images from visual art and combining them with detailed realistic setting, yet unafraid of theatrical tropes and melodramatic scenes, Murnau—a gay man who, if he’d lived beyond 1931, might have produced radically campy films worthy of James Whale, Fassbinder and others—turned Moliere’s classic on its head, so to speak, revealing the hypocrisy in all of society instead of just its religiously-inclined central figure.
Today, in fact, this film has even more significance than it might have at its original showing. It represents, after all, a figure of amazing power—a man who could transform the happily married and clearly bourgeois Orgon (Werner Krauss) into a penitent who, upon his return home wants to remove every object of luxury, including his beautiful wife, Elmire (Lil Dagover), from his house.
One by one, the wonderful Emil Jannings—one of Murnau’s favorite actors—represented as complete fraud, despite the small booklet of his spiritual prescriptions pasted almost always in this film, to his face. Never was an actor more obscured from the busy work of the camera than in this picture. Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride are one-by-one trotted out to the reveal the vile nature of the man to whom Orgon has given over his life. This film is a kind a Faust in fomentation, a satiric version of the black contagion of his later villain.
To save her husband from his new “religious mania,” Elmire, dons her best dress and attempts, quite successfully, to arouse Tartuffe’s not-so-very-hidden passions. Yet even what he might see what is going on before his very eyes, her husband is unable to perceive the truth—always a wobbly thing in Murnau’s movies.
The hero of this story is actually Orgon’s now unbeloved grandson—after all he has discredited himself by becoming an actor—who returns home to find that the house has been taken over by Orgon’s equally hypocritical housekeeper (the wonderful cabaret singer Rosa Valetti), who with a wink of the eye reveals both her hate and obsequious love of her master, who is now about to leave her his entire fortune. The scene in which he writes his will, while she pretends to dust and clear up his desk, watching him with wide-eyed pleasure and joy, is one of the many wonders of this movie.
Murnau, from his childhood on, was described as a dreamer, a man who almost daily described to his brother the intense dreams he had had the night before. Films, art, and theater were clearly manifestations of his desire to return to sometimes pleasant tales and nightmares he experienced in his sleep. In this film the “actor” (André Mattoni), who quickly deduces what is going on and, donning a costume out of his stock, becomes a mustachioed film-producer, this time showing the film-within-the-film of Tartuffe, revealing the perfidy of both the “saintly” Tartuffe and Ogron’s housekeeper at the very same moment.
If Orgon’s wife almost disappears from the film, it nonetheless is clear that the handsome young grandson, a mirror we might say, of Murnau himself, takes center-stage, resurrecting the chaos around him, and moving the film-within-a-film, back into social order.
As film critic Tristan Ettleman writes:
The frame story hammers the point home a bit too clearly,
but nevertheless, it’s a fun bit of metafictional business with
technical significance. André Mattoni’s grandson addresses
the camera directly with an intertitle, at one point, asking the
audience if they had seen what just took place. It’s a fun gag,
and in this point, Tartuffe illustrates the power of cinema itself.
Los Angeles, November 10, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).