Tartuffe (1925)

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Film review by Jason Day of Tartuffe, the German silent drama starring Emil Jannings and Lil Dagover. Directed by F.W. Murnau. 

Silent

 

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City Girl (1930)

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Director: F.W. Murnau. Fox Film Corporation.

SILENT

 

 

Producer: William Fox.
Writers: Berthold Viertel, Marion Orth.
Camera: Ernest Palmer.
Music: Christopher Caliendo (2008)
Sets: Harry Oliver.

Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, David Torrance, Edith Yorke, Guinn Williams, Richard Alexander.

SYNOPSIS

Country bumpkin Lem (Farrell) takes a trip to the big city to sell his father’s (Torrance) precious wheat. Whilst eating at a diner, he strikes up a romance with the pretty but downtrodden waitress Kate (Duncan). Impulsively following the direction of a fortune card, he proposes to her. Delighted at the thought of a relaxing life in the country, she accepts and the overjoyed couple travel to his Minnesota farmland home. But the loved up couple face the scorn and derision of Lem’s father, who physically assaults Kate. When Lem fails to defend her, the relationship sours and Kate finds herself chased by farmhand Mac (Alexander).

REVIEW

The reputation of German movie maestro Murnau towered above his peers as much the man physically did, standing 6ft 9″ in his cotton socks.

Transplanted to America under the aegis of film producer William Fox and given complete and utter creative freedom, he produced the blissful, but expensive, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, of which City Girl is a companion piece.

But Sunrise, despite all of the critical kudos it heaped on Fox’s studio, earned very little money and Murnau found his creativity curtailed and there on in he was watched a little more closely. His work, thankfully, did not suffer too much as a result: there is no complete print of 4 Devils (1928) but City Girl shows Murnau on elegant top form.

Based on the play The Mud Turtle by Elliott Lester, it continues in a similar vein to Sunrise with the contrasts between rural and urban life, but this time around it is the countryside that is the harsher environment toward the outsider, who now is the supposedly worldly wise woman whose unexpected naivety leads her out of her comfort zone, rather than the innocent man driven mad by lust for a sexually forward harlot.

This is a simple morality tale, but evocatively told. Murnau, rather than trying to crack a sweet nut with a sledgehammer, presents the contrasts vividly with consummate cinematic skill.

In the country, the bread has to be sliced by hand for the little family. In Kate’s city, toast magically appears pre-sliced on an industrial conveyor belt to cope with demand.

In the countryside there are only vast expanses of arable land for boisterous locals. In the city, solitary and depressed Kate lives next door to an ever passing train and tends to a single flower. She has only a mechanical bird in a gilded cage for company. The robotic tweeting of this pretty ornament is a near perfect reflection of the automaton, wind-me-up-and-watch-me-go nature of Kate’s function as a waitress.

In this job, there is also an obvious continuation. Kate ups sticks for the sticks but soon finds that the life of sunbathing leisure she hoped for yields only more of the same drudgery – although they wear dungarees instead of suits and hats, she soon finds herself back in waitress garb serving endless cups of coffee to endlessly famished men.

Kate also has to deal with the prejudices and snobbery of the labouring classes – waitress is spelled out in letters that loom over the viewer, a millstone of suspicion hung draped over her.

Murnau weaves into this tale some adorable visual imagery, such as the newlyweds running and kissing through the wheat fields and the initial scenes of Kate and Lem first meeting which have a coyly sexual frisson.

Farrell, who was a popular box office star in the late 1920’s and throughout the 30’s, has exactly the right brand of wholesome, apple pie beauty for such a role, a boy who seriously needs to “man up” and grow a couple. Usually more beautiful than his leading ladies, he is the eponymous wide-eyed innocent, mooning over Duncan and blushingly turning away when her skirt rides up and he can see her thighs. He makes you feel this is the sort of man who believes a fortune card prophecy that if he marries a woman he’s known for only 10 minutes it will put the world to rights.

Duncan complements him delightfully  – a stellar silent movie turn of expressive eyes and suggestive, dramatic posture. Duncan was a capable performer who started late in silent movies (movie debut 1927) and retired too early only six years later.

Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

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Film review by Jason Day of the silent epic from F.W. Mourn about an old man who sells his soul to the devil in return for his youth. Starring Gosta Ekman and Emil Jannings.

Director: F.W. Murnau. 106 mins. Parufamet (Paramount/MGM & Ufa).

Silent

 

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The Last Laugh/Der Letzte Mann (1924)

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Director: F.W. Murnau. UFA.

SILENT

 

Producer: Erich Pommer. Writer: Carl Meyer. Camera: Karl Freund. Music: Werner Schmidt-Boelcke, Giuseppe Becce, Karl Ernst Sasse. Florian C. Reithner (1996 reissue). Sets: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Emilie Kurz, Hans Unterkircher, Olaf Storm, Hermann Valentin, Georg John, Emmy Wyda.

SYNOPSIS

Physically unable to carry the burden of his duties any longer, a hotel doorman (Jannings) is given a less taxing but more menial position as a bathroom attendant. Embarrassed and humiliated that his neighbours will no longer see him for the preening peacock that he is, he steals the coat of his uniform in a bid to pull the wool over their eyes. But his peeping in-law Kurz spots the new man on the job and tells his neighbours.

REVIEW

One of the crowning glories of the golden age of expressionistic film-making in post World War I Germany (expressionism being an artistic movement where, to put it simply, the artistic product is exaggerated wildly for emotional effect, to evoke moods or ideas), this is a simple story about human pride and human failings that is, correspondingly. distorted onto a lavish, multi-million DeutschMark canvas.

Based on Nikolai Gogol’s anti-militaristic novel The Coat, it is turned by expressionist supremo Murnau into a visually stunning, gripping tale that hits its mark despite, or perhaps because of, Murnau’s decision to not use a single title card to explain the action. Silent movies had progressed to such a level of stylistic sophistication that written descriptions were no longer necessary. This addition (or subtraction) was not repeated in other films of the period though.

Among the most notable features here is the admirable use of mobile camera work that really liberates the action; the moment where the porter imagines the Atlantic Hotel is going to topple down on him and the night watchman’s torch that seems to focus Jannings’ desperation.

All in all, Murnau created perhaps the most modern and accomplished of silent films up to this point.

Narrative wise, the story is strong when it comes to exploring themes of how the importance placed on uniforms can envelop people and leave them to assuming a role dictated by position and it is interesting to see how Murnau positions other people in relation to the obsession Jannings has with his coat – his neighbours protect it from the dust they beat out of their carpets. It doesn’t require a huge leap of faith to link this theme to the still very recent memories of WW1 and it is prescient in terms of what would happen only a decade later in Germany under Nazi rule.

Interesting to note that the porter/janitor character is unnamed throughout. In fact, every character is defined by their function or relationship to him. This impersonality is a little unsettling, as if Murnau is refusing us identify with his characters on a personal level, but it concentrates the mind a little more on what people are doing rather than who is doing it.

There was no other face of the silent era that was better constructed to convey angst, desperation and dismay at the vicissitudes that life can throw at us that Jannings. He always excelled in roles that required him to suffer nobly as opprobrium is heaped upon him and, here, his terrified, kitten-like eyes are almost painful to watch. It is a performance of commendable physicality – bolt upright and proud when we first see him, saluting his neighbours and fastidiously attending to his appearance and then crook-backed and shifty as the film finishes.

Quite why Murnau then had to ruin all of his good work with a completely disposable epilogue is another matter, but The Last Laugh is still a grand piece.