Enjoying success and acclaim for his previous film Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), F. W. Murnau had plans to move on to his next project, Faust (1926), but the success of the earlier film, which would bring Murnau to the attention of Hollywood studio executives where he would go on to make Sunrise, also raised his profile with the Ufa studio, who obligated the director to first take on a script that Carl Mayer had prepared for their star actor, Emil Jannings, in the title-role of Molière’s play Tartuffe. A German produced costume drama of a 17th century French satire makes for an atypical Murnau film.
A young man visits his grandfather to find himself no longer welcome. In an effort to gain from the old man’s will, the greedy housemaid who has been looking after him has been filling his head with stories of his grandson’s life of dissipation as an actor. The young man addresses the camera and brightly informs us that he will not allow such a situation to persist. Disguising himself as a travelling cinema show projectionist, the grandson plays for them the morality tale of Herr Tartüff. In the projected film, Mr Orgon returns home from a long journey, where his wife Elmire is anxiously awaiting him. Orgon’s attitude has changed however, as he has fallen under the influence of a religious fanatic and ascetic called Tartuffe. He demands that all the luxurious trappings of their household be removed and dismisses his servants before Tartuffe comes to stay with them. Elmire however is suspicious of the man and sets out to prove to her husband that Tartuffe is a fraud and a hypocrite.
The message of the film is perfectly clear and there is no hidden subtext at all here. It’s extremely anti-clerical in the central story, pointing out the hypocrisy of religion, its feeding on people’s fears and weaknesses to fill its coffers and impose its twisted morality and behavioural standards on people, while secretly indulging its own vices. The modern day framing device allows this message to be updated to apply to everyday hypocrisy in the people around us who act for their own gain, which is no great revelation and actually lessens the impact of the satire. Many critics, including R. Dixon Smith in his fine essay included in the accompanying booklet that comes with this DVD, have tried to restore Tartuffe’s reputation and place it as an important film in F. W. Murnau’s short list of existing films, even though the film wasn’t one he chose himself and was made only under a contractual obligation. There is no denying that it certainly is of interest as a rare work by one of the most important directors and filmmaking innovators from the silent era and there are certainly themes here that are personal to the director – as a homosexual Murnau would certainly have identified with the theme of religious and sexual repression – but it’s not that great a film and, based on a 1664 play by Molière, it is tied to a certain French satirical style that is not so much outdated in subject matter as in its rather heavy-handed presentation. This doesn’t translate so well to the screen, neither in its relatively straightforward presentation of the costume drama element, nor within the rather simple parallel modern-day framing device. Certainly the film has notable aspects – Karl Freund’s strong visual sense, Emil Janning’s unctuous portrayal of the hypocritical cleric – but even here they have less of the ingenuity or sympathy that they brought to Murnau’s previous film and simple morality play, the marvellous The Last Laugh, which managed to be much more subtle in its anti-militaristic subtext than Tartuffe handles its anti-clerical message.
There were four original negatives made of Tartuffe, none of which survive although prints from each version still exist. The US version is used for the DVD edition here, restored in 2002 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv. The English intertitles from this print have been replaced by restored German intertitles. As the German print is believed lost, they have been re-created based on the original 1925 designs. The US version is censored and has scenes removed or subtly altered by the filmmaker to appear less contentious and these cuts strangely have not been restored for this edition. The disc’s menus are available in German, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The DVD includes a 16-page illustrated booklet with an essay from R. Dixon Smith, providing both historical information and critical analysis of the film.
The picture quality is very good, although coming from a print rather than the original negative, the contrast is high and further emphasised by the sepia tinting. It may not be perfectly detailed, but considering the quality of the remaining elements of the film I don’t think it could look much better than it looks here. The print has been extremely well restored and is very stable, showing little signs of damage, telecine wavering or light flicker. It is transferred at the correct speed of 24 frames per second at the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
As this is a silent film, there are no problems with the audio track. According to the accompanying information, the scripts exist of the original piano score by Giuseppe Becce, but this edition uses a new piano score by Javier Pérez de Azpeita. It is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and works reasonably well with the film.
The original German intertitles, although lost, have been re-created in the correct font, based on the original designs. Optional English subtitles translate these and most incidental text throughout the film. The disc also includes subtitles in French, Spanish and Portuguese.
Tartuffe: The Lost Film (41:20)
This is a marvellously detailed documentary examining scripts, drafts, books and archive newspapers into a complete study of the film’s production. It looks at the difference between the original play and the film and also looks at the different versions of the film, pointing out the scenes changed for the US edition and scenes cut by the US censor. The film is considered ‘lost’ as the original print is no longer in existence – something that is also true of most of Murnau’s early films, although we are at least fortunate to have prints of Tartuffe. Note that there is an epilogue after the closing titles here, which shows the complete epilogue from the Swiss version of the film, which is rather different from the US version. The documentary is in German with optional subtitles.
This provides technical information, dates and locations of premieres, cast and crew information.
Excellent detailed biographies are included for all cast and crew with selected filmographies.
Picture Slideshow (4:40)
An extensive 58 still photographs can be viewed as a slideshow or can be navigated. Most are production shots, some are promotional stills and there are one or two behind-the-scenes shots.
Tartuffe is not the best film you will see by F. W. Murnau, but it is nonetheless an interesting if rather minor curiosity from one of the most important filmmakers of any time, delivered with customary flair and skill by an illustrious technical crew and cast. I’m surprised at the choice of a straight restoration of the US print for this edition without any attempt to restore scenes cut by the censor which still exist in other versions, nor is it clear why a new score was commissioned rather than using the original Giuseppe Becce one, but considering this version has been approved by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, I’m sure there must be technical or economic reasons for their choices. As ever though, Eureka in collaboration with Masters of Cinema, have treated this edition with utmost care, taking the best elements available and presenting them superbly with a comprehensive set of supporting features, expert opinion and historical background information, which greatly adds to a fuller appreciation of these cinema classics.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:39:44