Monday, November 26, 2012

Tartuffe (1925) Review

Tartuffe poster
Director: F.W. Murnau
Stars: Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover
Genre: German Expressionism, Satire, Drama

Tartuffe, also commonly written as Tartüff, really impressed me. It's one of Murnau's lesser known films, and I expected a good film from him nonetheless since he's a wonderful director, but I was surprised just how good it actually was. Very, very good. 


The film is about a grandson who reveals to his grandfather that his housemaid is deceiving him in order to inherit his fortunes. The way the grandson reveals this to his grandfather is by showing him a film, based on Moliere's play, Tartuffe. It's a very early example of a film within a film. The film within a film is reminiscent of what was happening in the grandfather's real life. The film within a film is about a man who worships another religious man, only to find out that he is not quite the saint he thought him to be.

The film serves as an obvious allegory to the hypocrisy and blindness of religion. Like Moliere's original play in the 1600's, when Tartuffe was released in the 1920's it caused a bit of outrage, mostly from religious groups. 

The man, Tartuffe, played by Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh, Faust, Waxworks, The Last Command, The Blue Angel), represents religion. Tartuffe's blind follower and admirer, Orgon, played by Werner Krauss (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), represents just that: blind followers of religion.

The film deals with religion's hypocrisies, illogicality, and manipulations. To me, the film's basic message was that when you take a closer look at religion, and when you see its true essence, i.e., when you realize its hypocrisies and whatnot,  it is in fact a very ugly thing, and once you see this, you no longer support it. It portrays religion to be very calculating and insincere.

Tartuffe and Orgon always have their little bibles (or psalm books?) with them and they're constantly reading them, but when they read them they put the book right in front of their face and literally have their noses on the book. I like to think that this is suggesting that when you always have a bible in front of your face, or when you hold religion too closely, it makes you blind and prevents you from seeing what is right in front of you.

Emil Jannings and Lil Dagover in Tartuffe

Religious criticisms aside, the film has other good things going for it. The sets are pretty good for one thing. The film within a film's sets in particular are nice. It has a very 18th century look...kind of a Victorian feel. The sets aren't overly extravagant and it's not as stylized as you may expect an Expressionist film to be, but still nice. 

The legendary Karl Freund is the cinematographer and this is definitely some of his best work. There's some really cool shots in here and even some that were way ahead of its time. You may not recognize Karl Freund by name, but if you've ever watched The Golem or The Last Laugh or Michael or Metropolis or Dracula or Key Largo, then you're familiar with his work. And that's only naming a few, this guy has been the cinematographer on tons of great films.

Great cinematography in F.W. Murnau's Tartuffe

The film managed to keep me intently interested the entire time. Albeit it's a shorter film, but it's also pretty slow and silent films tend to put me to sleep if there isn't much happening. Not Tartuffe, it kept me very awake. I credit this to a great story (adapted by Carl Mayer), great acting, and great characterization.

Seriously, all the characters here are fascinating and well portrayed. We have some big name actors of the genre in here too; Emil Jannings, who was in tons of films of the time, and you may recognize Werner Krauss and Lil Dagover from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They all do a great job, and though there is a bit of over-acting, as you should expect in a silent film, it's actually pretty tame acting compared to a lot of other films.

Still from F.W. Murnau's Tartuffe 1925

In the version I watched the soundtrack was pretty good. There was no color tinting but that really didn't matter; most of the film takes place in the same place anyway.

There are many parallels drawn between this film and Murnau's earlier work, Nosferatu. In Tartuffe it is not a mythological bloodsucker, but one of reality, one we've all encountered. And again, as in Nosferatu, it is his wife that must sacrifice herself to save her husband.

Oh, and I almost forgot, early on in the film a character looks directly at the camera and talks to the audience. One of the earliest example of breaking the fourth wall that I've thus seen. Also, there's some POV cleavage shots. Murnau was a genius. 

Candle Tartuffe

If you're a fan of F.W. Murnau or of German Expressionism, Tartuffe is well worth the watch and a very overlooked film of the genre. 

4.5/5 stars

Purchase Tartuffe on Amazon: DVD
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