August 6, 2020
The Burning Soil – Germany, 1922
There are many ways to categorize films from the silent period; perhaps one of the most interesting of which has to do with the use of the camera. For much of film’s first two decades, the camera was stationary, sitting atop a tripod, its gaze fixed on a rectangular section of a room or outdoor area. This had to be incredibly limiting to early directors, and I suspect that it was part of the reason that directing received so little respect from early studio heads; after all, the thought likely went, anyone can set a camera in position and yell action. Hollywood legend has it that D.W. Griffith was offered his first directing opportunity simply because he it was felt that he wasn’t photogenic enough to be in front of the camera; he understood the implication and is said to have interpreted the offer as an affront.
F.W. Murnau is often credited with releasing the camera from its sedentary position. While this is not entirely accurate, there is denying the impact of his 1924 film The Last Laugh – after it, there was simply no going back. He followed it up with a series of films that were both visually and narratively fascinating: Tartuffe, Faust, Sunrise, 4 Devils, City Girl, and Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. Along with his earlier masterpiece, Nosferatu,, these are the films that Murnau is primarily known for today.
In 1922, he made four films, an output unheard of today. The most famous of these remains Nosferatu. One, Marizza, called the Smuggler Madonna is mostly lost, and Phantom didn’t work for me all that well. That brings me to The Burning Soil, Murnau’s tale of unrestrained ambition and the destruction that can be left in its wake.
The film begins with the following short description, the disaster of an ambitious man in six acts, and for some time, we are unsure which man is being referred to. We meet Mr. Josef Emmanuel (Eduard von Winterstein), who is seemingly obsessed with a piece of land that he owns called Devil’s Field, a moniker it received due to the superstition that land that cannot bear fruit is cursed; rumor has it that a treasure is buried there. We also meet a young man named Johannes Rog (Vladimir Gajdarov), who, as the picture opens, is frantically trying to get back to his childhood home before his father passes away. Then there’s Peter (played impressively by Eugen Klopfer), Johannes’s down-to-earth brother, as well as Ludwig von Lellewel (Alfred Abel), Johannes’s best friend and the suitor of Emmanuel’s feisty young daughter, Gerda (Lya De Putti). For a while, each of these men has a reason to put his ambition above all else, and had the film not specified a gender, Gerda herself would be a candidate as well.
Johannes arrives too late to bid farewell to his father, but with his last words, he expresses hope that Johannes will return to the farm and marry a young woman named Marie. It doesn’t happen. Instead, Johannes, loathe to do farm work, finds employment as Mr. Emmanuel’s secretary. One day he happens to hear him say that Devil’s Field may have vast oil reserves, and as you know, such news is music to an overly ambitious man’s ears. There are a few directions the story can take at this point, some fairly predictable, but Murnau has the good sense to take the road less traveled, and the latter half of the film ismuch stronger as a result.
Still, had Murnau made The Burning Soil post The Last Laugh, it would likely be a much more involving film. In a few scenes, Murnau films characters descending into a hole in the ground. A later film would likely cut to a shot of what the man is doing in the hole, but here the camera stays where it is, while nothing happens on screen. The man re-emerges about thirty seconds later, panting and exhausted. What he was doing remains a mystery for some time, and when the revelation comes, it stretches credibility that it wouldn’t have taken much longer. In another scene, we watch as a fire rages out of control. However, the camera remains in place far from the threat, minimizing both the mayhem and the tension the scene is intended to convey.
The film has plenty to recommend it for, though. I quite enjoyed the dynamics of Johannes’s relationship with Peter, for even though they don’t have a lot of screen time together, their differences ring loud and clear. I also felt the film created three well thought out female characters, each with a distinct personality despite having the same misguided faith in the same man. And Murnau does an excellent job of building tension. We can see a train wreck coming, and I, for one, cared enough for the characters to wish I could prevent it. Sure, the ending is far too contrived and there are a few holes in logic that are never patched up, but Murnau and his talented cast make up for that with their solid and moving performances. I just wish the film were in better condition. Of Murnau’s twenty-one films, only twelve exist today, so while I understand the financial considerations that went into deciding not to restore the film, I hope someone reconsiders that decision. Murnau was a global treasure, and we should take better care of those. (on DVD)