Tartuffe (F.W. Murnau / Germany, 1926):

One of silent cinema’s most rigorous formalist exercises, molded in terms of spatial gaggery then mistaken as a botched comic adaptation from an artist with no real affinity for comedy. UFA insists on Molière before Goethe, though it’s F.W. Murnau all the same, issuing total theatricality, thus total cinema -- no less than The Last Laugh's swooping camera, an essay on the relationship of film subject and film frame. "We want no cinema," bellows the hulking Marie Dressleresque housekeeper (Rosa Valetti) to the traveling Lumière-show merchant on the street, though flattery changes her mind and a showing is arranged as distraction for her old master (Hermann Picha); film, however, is to usher in the truth, for the whiskered projectionist is really the man’s grandson (André Mattoni), using the medium to open his eyes to the maid’s treachery. Into the screen for the narrative, 17th-century France, where rich Orgon (Werner Krauss) empties out his manor of all "sinful frivolity" to accommodate the pious asceticism of Tartuffe (Emil Jannings); Tartuffe taps the cleavage of Elmire (Lil Dagover), Orgon’s suspicious wife, with his pocket-sized Bible, so the bewigged frau takes upon herself to uncloak this charlatan with mock-swooning. A story of "saints and sinners," also the director’s beloved, threatened-couple arc (heterosexual normalcy is restored for the finale, but not before plenty of repressed overtones), and self-reflexivity. The world is a theatre, of course, role-playing and disguises are essential, Elmire’s flirtation a performance for Tartuffe, watched by Orgon behind the curtains, by the modern-day clan, and by viewers on the other side of the screen. Doors open and close, characters enter and exit, yet Murnau always starts with the image -- the frame is his, and he measures it, in length (Jannings and Krauss blockily marching back and forth in front of the breakfast table, in and out of the wings) and in depth (the grandfather’s rocking chair tracing the space between background and foreground). His assignment made translucent, the auteur is then free to move on to Faust. Cinematography by Karl Freund. Carl Mayer wrote the adaptation. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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