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Wordless Wonders: Early Murnau (Five Films 1921-1925) – Blu-ray review

September 16, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Masters of Cinema is releasing an indispensable box-set to the early work of German pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm (aka F.W.) Murnau.  While justly famous for vampire movie Nosferatu and his Hollywood breakthrough Sunrise, these five films show the versatility of a director who was ridiculously prolific before his early death in 1931, aged 43.

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Schloß Vogelod (1921)

It’s taken for read these days that Murnau was a master.  What’s interesting is to revisit some of his earliest films to see how rapidly he developed.  Schloß Vogelod was made a decade before the director’s early death and yet he’d cram more than a film a year into the remainder of his life, getting more and more ambitious as he went along.  Few filmmakers had such tight compression of career.

So, this is Murnau in his infancy, but the talent is there.  The camera doesn’t move at all in Schloß Vogelod – something that would become a trademark by the time he went to Hollywood – but there’s a stunning clarity of purpose behind every shot.  Confined to the titular castle (apart from the odd excursion into its grounds), Murnau uses careful composition, lighting and set design to demarcate the space and the relationships between characters.

The material (country manor guests wonder if there’s a murderer amongst their ranks) is unusual enough to justify the grandeur of the staging.  It’s a melodrama, mystery and detective story rolled into one… yet the country-house setting also provides elements of knockabout farce, largely through the character known only as ‘Anxious Gentleman.’  Such drawing-rooms would provide narrative fuel for mercurial talents like Renoir (in La Regle Du Jeu) and Altman (in Gosford Park); if Murnau’s film isn’t quite in their league, it’s a fascinating blueprint for the sub-genre’s possibilities.

Even in a short running time, Murnau is clearly bored with conventional staging.  Wherever possible, he opts for innovation, with flashbacks and dream sequences – one of which is genuinely nightmarish, foreshadowing Nosferatu with the creepy, clawed hand of something otherworldly.  And then there’s the film’s twist ending – a clear clue as to the director’s impatience with realism, and the sense that this crazy new medium he’s discovering is perfect for injecting notes of dreamlike irrationality even into the most seemingly prosaic of material.

Phantom (1922)

Phantom was one of four films Murnau made in a single year and, while eclipsed by Nosferatu – the most iconic of his 1922 output – it’s a good marker of his development during his early years.  It’s a film of remarkable assurance.  It is adapted (by Fritz Lang’s regular screenwriter, Thea Von Harbou) from a novel and, despite a theatrical-style structure, Murnau deploys everything at his disposal to give it pace and visuality.  Phantom features flashbacks, dream sequences, cross-cutting, multiple exposures, all combined to achieve narrative intrigue or psychological insight.  Just about the only thing missing is the mobility for which Murnau would become famous… until a whirlwind sequence of Bacchanalian excess in which the camera rises to the rafters or swings about with heady abandon.

The story is a typical morality play, about Lorenz, a bookish clerk and wannabe poet lured into decadence after becoming smitten by a woman.  Nominally, she’s the ‘phantom’ of the piece but Murnau is thinking laterally.  The real phantoms lurk in Lorenz’s mind: envy for wealth, sexual repression and artistic self-doubt and, via the fraught performance of Martin Freeman lookalike Alfred Abel and some intelligent cutting, Murnau delves into the gap between bitter reality and the fantasies that Lorenz dreams of.  What’s interesting, of course, is that the title could just as easily have been used for Nosferatu and the themes are consistent (between these two and other Murnau films): the temptations of the flesh and of the soul.

Remarkably, given the era, there are few of the extremes of German Expressionism witnessed in – say – The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, despite sets being created by that film’s production designer Hermann Warm.  Instead, Murnau applies the logic of Expressionism into real-world scenarios by using sets which offer a subtly exaggerated realism (in much the same way that Nosferatu gains from its location shooting).  In Murnau’s eyes there is enough in Weimar-era debauchery to fuel a nightmare of a life gone off the rails, aided by the vivid cut-and-thrust of the story, in which subplots multiply and collide.  Given how stripped down Murnau’s takes on Dracula and Tartuffe were, it’s fascinating to see him work with such detailed plotting, even if the film can’t quite justify allotting such length to such a prosaic tale.

The Grand Duke’s Finances (1924)

These days, Murnau is best known for the intensity and swagger of his visionary classics.  Delving deeper into his back catalogue is an instructive exercise; not only was he ridiculously prolific, he was also astonishingly versatile.  There’s no better example of that than The Grand Duke’s Finances – a German silent comedy.

That isn’t to say it’s anything like the films of Chaplin or Keaton coming out of Hollywood; this isn’t a slapstick or even a filmed stage farce, but an adaptation of a surprisingly complex novel involving debts, revolutionaries and a Russian princess.  Bar the presence of many of his repertory players – not least Max Schreck, Nosferatu himself, in a non-vampiric role – you’d be stretched to see how it fits alongside Murnau’s other films.

The common denominator is that Murnau’s technique makes it work – and, crucially, it’s funny.  There’s a superbly timed gag about a glass of Cognac, some literal gallows humour, a spot of cross-dressing and a surreal encounter with a duo of animal impersonators.  Above all, though, there’s the sense of absurdist fun in Murnau’s cross-cutting between characters, all involved in a wacky race to get back to the island in time for the big finale.  The charismatic character played by Alfred Abel, a playboy adventurer, is a prototype for Hollywood’s screwball films of the 1930s, and you wonder if the director might have followed the likes of Lubitsch into the genre had he lived long enough.

With its location filming on the Adriatic, it’s a breezier affair than Murnau’s studio-bound, more psychologically rapt dramas – but the travelogue element does tie it to Nosferatu and Sunrise.  There’s the sense of a director finding new ways of telling stories; there’s a generosity and confidence here.  Even if Murnau still isn’t moving his camera about with the freedom and verve he’d achieve later on, the editing is positively dashing.

The Last Laugh (1924)

What do you get for the director who has everything?  Clearly, Murnau was a proven talent behind the camera by 1924, with plenty of experience telling stories on screen.  Yet there was one area that impeded his ability to create a truly cinematic language: the intertitle.  Most of his films were based on existing stories, which left plenty of exposition that needed to be literally spelled out.

In The Last Laugh, Murnau makes a pure film: a story that dispenses with the intrusive talk.  Here’s a tale carved out of observational detail, by the collision of a character with his environment and by the clothes he wears.  Psychology is allegory, as a hotel doorman is stripped of his rank – and all of the self-importance and vanity that goes with it – and forced to become a lavatory attendant.

This is an exercise in thinking visually.  So much of the impact of the film depends on locations – from the grandeur of the lobby, amidst the bustle of revolving doors, to the stark, empty bathroom in the basement – or of costume, with Emil Jannings’ hero riding high on brass buttons and epaulettes.  But Murnau wasn’t done there.  Rather than using words to convey meaning, he liberates the camera from theatrical staging and swings it about with abandon.

From the startling opening shot (the audience treated to a ride on an elevator), Murnau tracks and dollies: closing in on the doorman’s crushed spirit as he gets his marching orders; charting Jannings’ furtive theft of his costume,  pinballing between gossiping neighbours as they share the truth about their esteemed neighbour.  The dream sequences, always a Murnau special, go nuts with hand-held camerawork and double exposures.  For good measure, when there are words on screen, Murnau superimposes visuals over the top.

It’s extraordinary – right up until the bathetic, overlong epilogue where the broken man gets a ludicrous reprieve and gets to lord it up, snubbing the snobs by making rich men of his impoverished co-worker.  In narrative terms, it’s a mistake… but it adds a dark twist to a film that is already fascinating to watch in the light of its timing.  A German film about a man obsessed with uniform?  Within the decade, that would be the reality for this nation, and there’s an ominous undertone to the idea that Jannings’ neighbours can be so wholly swayed by what he is or isn’t wearing.  In this sense, the ending reinforces a fickle faith in power and prestige that would take on sinister weight soon after.

Tartuffe (1925)

Tartuffe has a special relevance for me; outside of nativities, my single stage performance was a Sixth Form production of Molière’s classic play, in which I played the credulous idiot Orgon. Little did I know then that a film version existed, directed by one of the masters of silent cinema.

Murnau’s retelling of Molière is a fascinating experiment in translating theatre into a purely visual medium.  The material is ruthlessly pared down, with all but the most essential characters excised and the use of close-up and point-of-view accentuate the erotic dimension of hypocrisy: if nothing else, this is a film to show students of Laura Mulvey’s ‘male gaze,’ as Emil Jannings’ titular hypocrite covertly ogles the bosom and legs of Orgon’s wife Elmire.

With the addition of a modern-day framing device, the instruction is even clearer: look.  In a parallel tale of a fool taken in by a sinful imposter – in this case, his housekeeper – the deception is only revealed by the man’s grandson, in the guise of a travelling cinema that is showing Tartuffe as a film-within-a-film.  This is headily meta stuff, especially when the grandson directly addresses the camera to explain what he’s about to do.

Why this style?  It’s at once a study of cinema’s limitations and possibilities and, perhaps, a warning against being seduced by any charismatic charlatans who might happen to be hanging around the Germany of the 1920s.  It’s all too easy to read allegories of the rise of Nazism into any film of the Weimar Republic, yet such a reading isn’t exactly discouraged here by the way Orgon abandons decadent living infavour of a religious-flavoured asceticism. It’s cinema as post-theatrical moral klaxon, a pertinent call for watchfulness against the forces of darkness

What’s really interesting, though, is the insight it gives into Murnau’s own preoccupations.  While The Last Laugh had made Murnau famous for fluid camera movement, this is a throwback to his earlier films – and yet, there’s a delicious symmetry between Orgon’s instruction to turn out the lights and Murnau’s mastery of chiaroscuro.  For good measure, surely it’s practically an in-joke that Jannings moves with the same creepily rigid movement as Nosferatu.

Even more so, the repeated triangulation of characters across the two stories – a loving relationship under threat from a malevolent imposter – reveals a link to the already-filmed Nosferatu and the soon-to-come Hollywood debut, Sunrise.  This notion of the transience of happiness, and the need to constantly be on guard, crops up again and again, giving a tragic, moral weight to the interplay of light and darkness.

Early Murnau: Five Films 1921-1925 is released on Monday 26th September with tons of extras, including several documentaries and a packed essay booklet.

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