Tartuffe (1925)

I’ve filed this under “comedy” because that’s what it’s meant to be; it’s an adaptation (of a particularly loose sort) of the play by Moliere, and Moliere wrote comedies (in spite of Olivier’s reported assertion that he was “funny as a baby’s open grave”). Quite what Murnau made of it when he filmed it is another question, the answer to which is something I’m frankly not sure of. I’ve actually read a bit of Moliere, though I don’t think Tartuffe was among the bits I’ve read, but I gather Murnau’s version of it is an extremely slimmed down one; Carl Mayer’s original script was already rather different from the play text and Murnau fiddled with that even further after taking the film on. I gather he wasn’t thrilled about doing it (the accompanying documentary on the DVD suggests he either wanted to move straight on to Faust after The Last Laugh, or else do Variété which eventually got made by E.A. Dupont) and did it mainly as a favour to Emil Jannings; he adopts an interesting frame device in which an old man’s housekeeper tries to get him to cut his grandson out of his will and leave it all to her instead; the grandson uses a film of the Moliere play to expose her plan to the old boy, the play of course parallelling his situation (Tartuffe, the religious hypocrite, taking over the life of Orgon, the bourgeois, eventually making him sign over his fortune to him). Like I said, this was written as a comedy and I suppose Murnau meant it as one, but it’s handled so heavily it’s frankly hard to tell; it’s the sort of tale of a malign influence that could be played deadly serious, and the film can be read that way too to some extent. Difficult film to really get into.

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