March 20, 2020
Tartuffe – Germany, 1925
Seldom do I question a director’s decision to make a movie. During the studio system, directors had very little choice in the matter, and I prefer to give directors who made films after its collapse the benefit of the doubt since what we see on the screen does not always match what a director envisioned or intended. However, while I was watching F.W. Murnau’s 1925 film Tartuffe, that question kept resurfacing.
The film is based on the play Tartuffe, first performed in 1664, 65 years after the first staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and written by 17th century playwright, actor and poet Moliere. I mention Hamlet because even if you’ve never heard of Tartuffe, you’re likely familiar with Shakespeare’s drama, and therefore, very little that happens throughout the film’s 63-minute running time is likely to come as a surprise. True, the same can be said of other films adapted from novels, but the plots of these films are not so well known that even people who haven’t read them know their beginning, middle, and end.
To test this notion, let me explain the set-up of Murnau’s Tartuffe: A manipulative housekeeper (well-played by Rosa Valetti) has convinced her elderly employer (Hermann Picha) that his grandson (Andre Mattoni), an actor and supposed playboy, leads such a sinful life that he should be punished for his wickedness. Soon, we watch him write a legal note making her the sole heir to his fortune. The grandson gets wise to the plot, dons a clever disguise, and shows a film to both the schemer and the schemed. Any guess what the point of the film will be?
I should mention here that what I have just described is not in Moliere’s Tartuffe. His play focuses on the impact that a supposedly pious man named Tartuffe has on the family of a man named Orgon, and it has a number of fascinating twists and turns. Unfortunately, most of them have been removed in an attempt to produce a concise and uncomplicated cautionary tale. Gone is Orgon’s mother, who also falls under Tartuffe’s spell; also removed are Orgon’s children, an odd choice given that his daughter’s forced engagement to Tartuffe provides Orgon’s wife with a powerful motivation for wanting to expose him for the fraud he is. In Murnau’s version, there’s just Tartuffe, Orgon, his wife, Elmire, and Dorin, one of their housekeepers.
The result of this is that Tartuffe becomes a brief, overly simplified cautionary tale told not to detail the tragedy that can befall people who trust far too easily, but to send the message I know what you’re up to, a message that Murnau apparently doesn’t think has adequately been delivered, given how quickly the grandson reveals himself and announces his suspicions to his grandfather. This robs Moliere’s tale of much of its power, and while I’m not a fan of making changes to films when the director is no longer around to approve them, I could understand if someone decided to remove the film’s bookends and re-release it as a short.
The film was released a year after Murnau’s groundbreaking The Last Laugh. That was the film in which Murnau freed the camera from its stationary tripod, enabling him to use it in new, innovative ways, one of which was to put in on an elevator and film while it moved. As a result, the camera came alive. Murnau’s work here is equally impressive. Watch the way the camera follows Tartuffe as he leaves his room and descends the stairs, his eyes fixed on the Bible in front of them. It is hypnotic. In another scene, he focuses his lens on a picture of Orgon, as his wife struggles to accept the passive, dutiful subject that her husband has become. Suddenly, a tear falls on it, then another. We soon see the woman press her lips against the picture and weep. It is an incredible moment, and Murnau’s camera makes it immensely personal.
I’m not sure Emil Jannings ever gets Tartuffe, playing him more like a depraved Igor-figure rather than someone who could believably attract followers with his religious messages. Only when he reveals his true nature does Jannings begin to play him as a flesh-and-blood character. Werner Krauss fairs better as Orgon, as does Lil Dagover as Elmire, and I admire the way Murnau’s camera enables us to see the world through Tartuffe’s lecherous eyes. We see exactly what he is lusting for, and it made me a bit worried about Elmire’s safety.
Still, I could never shake the awareness that none of what I was watching really mattered. It was a play performed by an actor, a story told to shake a character of her sense of invulnerability. Eventually Tartuffe would again become something that Tartuffe the play was never intended to be, and I dreaded that. Now I can’t help lamenting what could have been. Murnau was a master storyteller; he fashioned images so powerful that they have become a permanent part of our cinematic memories. Tartuffe has its fair share of such scenes, yet they are diminished by the narrative they are used to support. Tartuffe could easily have been a masterpiece. In its present form, however, it is just a minor beauty - watchable, yet entirely forgettable, an example of what happens when a director and screenwriter don’t trust their source material. It’s a pity, really. Just read Tartuffe. It didn’t need any changes. (on DVD; on Blu-ray in April 28, 2020)
2 and a half stars
*Tartuffe is a silent film.