Friedrich Wilheim Murnau is one of the most celebrated directors of the silent era. He’s most famous for Nosferatu and Sunrise, but was the mastermind behind several classic pieces of early cinema before his untimely death in 1931 at the age of 42. Although the two reviews I’ve previously posted of his films haven’t quite perched them on the high pedestal others have placed them (I gave Nosferatu 4 stars and Tabu 3), I still class myself as a fan of his work as I was blown away by Sunrise when I first saw it a couple of years ago. It fully deserves its status as one of the greatest films of all time. So when Eureka announced they were packaging five of his early films in a Blu-Ray set, I didn’t hesitate to take them up on the offer of reviewing it, particularly as it includes one of his most highly regarded works, Der Letzte Mann.
Included in the 3 Blu-Ray set are Schloß Vogelöd (1921 – a.k.a. The Haunted Castle), Phantom (1922), Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (1924 – a.k.a. The Grand Duke’s Finances), Der Letzte Mann (1924 – a.k.a. The Last Laugh) and Tartuffe (1925).
Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Carl Mayer
Based on a Novel by: Rudolf Stratz
Starring: Arnold Korff, Lulu Kyser-Korff, Lothar Mehnert, Olga Tschechowa
Running Time: 82 min
Schloß Vogelöd is a chamber piece which sees a handful of aristocrats housed in a grand castle on a rained out hunting trip. One guest, the beautiful baroness Safferstätt (Olga Tschechowa), is yet to arrive and, before she does, the uninvited count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert) shows up. This causes a problem as he was the accused murderer of the baroness’ husband. When the baroness does arrive, she is deeply troubled by Oetsch’s presence, but the announcement that Father Faramund (Victor Bluetner) will also make it to the castle keeps her there so that she can confide in him a dark secret.
With an English title like The Haunted Castle, you might expect a creepy precursor to Nosferatu, but as the above synopsis will attest, Schloß Vogelöd is actually more of a mystery melodrama. There’s a brief dream sequence with a monster and one character (the one having the dream) is spooked out by the castle, but even that is more silly than scary. When I realised what I was in for I was a little disappointed, but nevertheless I found the film mildly enjoyable.
It’s not one of Murnau’s best unfortunately. It’s certainly not the game changer some of his later films were. The mystery is rather predictable, the melodrama a little overwrought (although this is a sign of the times as much as anything else) and there’s little of the director’s flair for powerful visuals, other than an expressionistic flashback towards the end. It’s entertaining enough though, for what it is – a run-of-the-mill whodunnit. Just don’t expect a horror movie or a classic of silent cinema.
Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou
Based on a Novel by: Gerhart Hauptmann
Starring: Alfred Abel, Frida Richard, Aud Egede-Nissen, Lya De Putti, Lil Dagover
Running Time: 125 min
Like Schloß Vogelöd, the poster and title of Phantom is a bit misleading. It sounds like Murnau is still working in the realm of horror shortly after the release of Nosferatu, but in actual fact this is a melodrama about obsession and the failures of the class system.
Lorenz (Alfred Abel) is a lowly clerk and wannabe poet, living on the breadline with his mother, brother and sister. A bookbinder friend Starke (Karl Etlinger), whose daughter Marie (Lil Dagover) is madly in love with Lorenz, reads some of his poems and declares him a genius. Lorenz is thrilled by this and over zealously sets out to prepare for his new life out of the slums. However, in a wild daydream stupor, he stumbles into the street and gets knocked over by a horse and carriage. This shocking event has a surprising consequence, as Lorenz falls instantly in love with the beautiful young woman driving the carriage, Veronika (Lya De Putti). She quickly disappears off into the grounds of a mansion though, which the lowly Lorenz isn’t allowed to enter. He won’t let this stop him and goes about doing everything he can to meet the woman again and make her his own. This doesn’t go well and to make matters worse, his intended poetry mentor squashes his dreams by outright dismissing Starke’s claims of genius. Lorenz needs to be considered a part of high society though to have any chance with Veronika, so he pretends to still be the esteemed poet he thought he’d become.
To help keep this lie alive, Lorenz is convinced by his aunt’s young husband (I think that’s what he is, or her son) to milk his wealthy relative for all she’s worth as she adores him and believes in his talents. Lorenz is usually well known for his honesty and good nature, but his lust for Veronika gets the better of him and he agrees to trick his aunt, slowly dragging himself into a whirlpool of lies destined to fall in on themselves.
The synopsis above doesn’t delve into all the narrative threads in the film, so, as you can imagine, it’s quite densely plotted. This kept me involved with the film, but on a whole I didn’t find I connected with it as much as I did some of the other films here. Melodrama isn’t usually my cup of tea and the moral messages can be laid on a bit thick here. The final act is very dramatic and exciting, making up for a fairly cumbersome build up, but a coda which closes the film feels rather cheesy.
I found it lacked the directorial showmanship of some of Murnau’s later work. There are some wonderful flourishes here and there, such as a precursor to the famous folding city in Inception, where we see the buildings bend and literally close in on Lorenz as it all gets too much for him, but such scenes are quite sparsely spread through the film. It’s still beautifully shot though, much more so than Schloß Vogelöd, which was made only one year previously.
So overall it’s a bit of a mixed bag, which gives a glimpse of the greater works to come, but isn’t consistent enough to share their acclaim.
Die Finanzen des Großherzogs
Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou
Based on a Novel by: Frank Heller
Starring: Mady Christians, Harry Liedtke, Robert Scholtz
Running Time: 80 min
Die Finanzen des Großherzogs is a comedy which concerns the financial troubles of the Grand Duke of Abacco (Harry Liedtke). In the opening scene he is visited by Mr. Markowitz (Guido Herzfeld), who the Duke owes a great deal of money to. Markowitz demands he gets his money back in three days or he will take ownership of the whole island of Abacco. Unfortunately, the laid back and carefree Duke and his subjects live a free and easy life, so there’s little money at hand or to be made. His only hope in keeping the island is in marrying Princess Olga (Mady Christians), who luckily he is rather fond of and vice versa. It’s not so simple though, as her father the king won’t allow it. To further complicate matters, a rich man called Becker (Hermann Vallentin) shows up, wanting to give the Duke a huge amount of money for Punta Hermosa, a cove on the island in which he’s found vast amounts of sulphur deposits. This sounds like it would save the Duke, but he refuses to make his lazy, fun loving subjects ‘chiselers’ as he calls them. Numerous more parties are thrown into the mix as everyone battles for a piece of the Duke’s land and he and his loyal but exasperated right hand man, Paqueno (Adolphe Engers), try to hang on to it.
I came to this film with fairly low expectations, as it’s not as highly rated as Murnau’s more famous work and I wasn’t a fan of the other ‘lesser’ title in the collection, Schloß Vogelöd. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Die Finanzen des Großherzogs may not be a poetic masterpiece like Sunrise, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. The narrative is complex to an enjoyably ridiculous degree, without getting too messy to wrap your head around. Loads of characters are piled into the brief running time, including some revolutionaries and a group of unsavoury types featuring Nosferatu himself, Max Schreck. Most of them all convene in a crazy showdown at the end.
The film is visually busy too, with plenty of movement and layers of activity in each frame. The editing is sharp and punchy too, making for a fast moving film, with lots of energy. It’s great to see a ‘Master of Cinema’ having a bit of fun and putting his hand to material generally regarded as throwaway. Under Murnau’s control the film is stronger than it probably has any right to be and his work is aided by a game cast who seem to be having a whale of a time.
Der Letzte Mann
Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Carl Mayer
Starring: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller
Running Time: 90 min
Der Letzte Mann tells the fairly simple story of an ageing doorman (Emil Jannings) who is demoted from his prestigious front of house role at a fancy hotel to being the washroom attendant. He tries to hide this from the family and neighbours he lives with in poor tenement flats, as they admire his status and his daughter is getting married, so he doesn’t want to disappoint her on such an important day. They eventually discover the truth though and he’s ridiculed and dismissed by all those around him.
This was the film in the set I’d heard most about and was the main reason I wanted to review it. Thankfully the film didn’t disappoint. Although dramatically it’s a small scale social drama and the plot is incredibly simple, Murnau pulls out all the stops, cinematically speaking, to turn this tale of an old man’s suffering into an exciting feast for the eyes. The camera is almost endlessly moving, riding down elevators, pushing through crowded hotel lobbies and busy streets. When it does stop, we get some wonderfully ambitious long takes, such as one where we gradually watch the apartment block, in which the doorman and his neighbours live, come alive as morning breaks. There’s also a wonderful drunk sequence which goes especially wild with the camera techniques, utilising clever shots that people still praise when used in modern films today, such as an early kind of SnorriCam, where the world spins around the static doorman. There’s another more realistic looking version of the city folding in on our protagonist too, as in Phantom and later Inception.
What Murnau achieves through these clever techniques, beyond just showing off, is superb visual storytelling. Other than a bit of scene-setting narration at the beginning and near the end, there are no title cards in Der Letzte Mann. Murnau lets the actions and performances on screen do the work usually set aside for dialogue.
Speaking of performances, the ever wonderful Jannings really outdoes himself here, displaying all the pathos required to let the audience sympathise with his character, without losing the doorman’s larger than life personality, which crumbles as his character grows more useless and feeble. He really throws himself into the role without ever feeling hammily over the top.
There’s an epilogue at the end that feels quite out of place perhaps and spoils the poignancy of what comes before, but, in introducing this section as a lie which would never happen in reality, it seems to be meant as a satire of mainstream cinematic storytelling. It still didn’t settle perfectly for me though, which is why I haven’t quite awarded this the full 5 stars, but, away from this epilogue, Der Letzte Mann is an exceptionally bold piece of filmmaking that astonishes on every level.
Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Carl Mayer
Based on a Play by: Molière
Starring: Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover, Rosa Valetti, André Mattoni
Running Time: 70 min
With Tartuffe, Murnau tackles a Molière play adapted by Sunrise, Der Letzte Mann and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari scribe, Carl Mayer. Supposedly the director didn’t want to make it, as he already had his head and heart in making Faust, but his studio Universum Film (UFA) insisted as they felt it was sure to be a hit.
A sort of morality play, but one that hits out at religious hypocrisy and fanaticism, the film version pares down the original script to the bare essentials and adds a postmodern framing device. In the latter, a housekeeper (Rosa Valetti) tends to a frail old man (Hermann Picha), acting like a saint in front of him, but treating him with disdain behind his back. We discover the reason she pretends to be so good to him is to have him change his will in her favour as she knows he’s ashamed of his grandson (André Mattoni), the rightful heir to his estate, due to him becoming an actor. The grandson appears at the house and cottons on to the housekeeper’s scheme, so returns later in disguise as the host of a travelling cinema. The film he brings to show his grandfather and his wicked housekeeper is Tartuffe.
This film within a film (based on the original play) is a period piece in which Mr. Orgon (Werner Krauss) comes home from his travels to his wife Elmire (Lil Dagover), who is initially thrilled to have him back. She finds him a changed man though. Whilst away he has befriended the saintly Tartuffe (Emil Jannings), who has convinced Orgon to follow his extreme pious ways. The husband orders his wife to get rid of all their extravagant possessions, sacks almost all of his house staff and refuses to engage in any romantic frivolities with his devastated spouse. Elmire smells a rat though and, after catching Tartuffe eying up her ‘goods’, she becomes determined to prove to her husband that the supposedly saintly man is a hypocrite and, worse still, an outright fraud.
Murnau may not have been that interested in making the film, but nonetheless his talent behind the camera is as evident as ever. The film looks fantastic, aided by some clever set design and framing. It’s beautifully lit too, with great use of ‘candlelight’ in particular. Murnau’s visual storytelling is very effective too. There may be many more title cards than in Der Letzte Mann, but much is still done through montage and suggestion. Speaking of suggestion, the film has a fair amount of provocative sequences too, particularly for the time, making for quite a sexually charged chamber piece.
In trimming so much out of the play in place of the framing device, which retells a similar story, the content of Tartuffe feels rather slight. However, it’s short, snappy and very entertaining. The cast are great, particularly Valetti and the always reliable Jannings, who plays things just to the right level of over the top. It’s proof that Murnau was incapable of simply earning a pay cheque.
Early Murnau – Five Films, 1921-1925 is out on 26th September in a 3-disc Blu-Ray set in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The films have all been beautifully remastered and look fantastic for their age.
On top of all five films, you get a handful of special features. Here’s the list:
– What Will You Be Tomorrow? A new video essay by filmmaker and critic David Cairns
– The Language of the Shadows: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and His Films, a 31-minute video piece by Luciano Berriatúa on the early works of Murnau
– Audio commentary by film scholar David Kalat on The Grand Duke’s Finances
– The Making of The Last Laugh, a 41-minute documentary by Murnau expert Luciano Berriatúa
– Tartuffe: The Lost Film, a 37-minute documentary by Berriatúa
– PLUS: A 100-page book featuring writing by Charles Jameux, Lotte H. Eisner, Janet Bergstrom, Tony Rayns, and archival imagery
I haven’t had chance to go through everything here, but everything I have seen has been thoroughly well researched and interesting to watch, filling you in on the fascinating goings on behind the scenes as well as offering thoughts and dissections of what appears on screen.