Wednesday, October 24, 2012
F.W. Murnau's City Girl is something of a response to and a reconfiguration of the director's earlier Sunrise, returning to that film's theme of the opposition of rural and urban values. Lem (Charles Farrell) is a farmer's son, heading to the big city to make a deal for his family's impending wheat harvest. While he's there, he isn't able to make quite the deal that his stern father (David Torrence) had been counting on, but he does meet the waitress Kate (Mary Duncan), so when he returns to the family farm, it's with a girl from the big city as his new wife. Naturally, this sets up a country/city divide, but not in the expected ways, and Murnau purposefully hints at his earlier film as a way of contrasting it against this one. At the beginning of the film, while Lem is taking the train to the city, he's sized up by a gold-digging woman who takes interest once she notices the wad of bills he's carrying. She's a callback to the vile city vamp of Sunrise, but Murnau swiftly foils her plans; thankfully, this isn't a story about the city girl corrupting the wholesome and innocent country boy, but something much more complex.
In fact, this is a film about love transcending that kind of shallow distinction between city and country. It's also about replacing romantic and artificial notions about rural purity and urban corruption with a more pragmatic and balanced view of humanity as a whole. Kate herself, unhappy in the city, romanticizes the country, looking longingly at posters of a wheat field and a pond with a couple rowing across it — an image that's not nearly as romantic as it seems to her, with Sunrise's iconic and rather grim boat ride in mind. Murnau sets the film up as though it is going to be steeped in romantic pastoralism, in shallow contrasts between city and country. "Give us this day our daily bread," the farmer says as he prepares to eat, and Murnau cuts from him slicing off a large slice of bread from a loaf to a diner in the city, where tiny slices of processed white bread roll off a conveyer belt for a waitress to serve. Lem is also something of a caricatured rural good boy, which is partly what attracts Kate to him in the first place. In a crowded, fast-paced urban restaurant where most of the guys just want to leer at her, Lem stands out as the guy who prays before he eats and writes out postcards expressing his love for his kindly mother (Edith Yorke).
It's when the couple arrives in the country that the trouble starts, though not quite immediately. Their arrival at Lem's family farm is exuberant and kinetic, Murnau's camera tracking along with the couple as they run and twirl through the fields of wheat, pausing to hold and kiss one another, excited and in love. The farmhouse in the distance, its chimney billowing smoke, promises the welcoming comfort of home and hearth. The reality, of course, is not quite as idyllic: Lem's father, with his own received ideas about the differences between city and country, views this woman as an interloper, a bad girl, a vamp who's just using his son in some way.
Once she moves to the country, Kate soon learns that it's not what she thought it would be, and that there's cruelty and nastiness everywhere, that there are even men here just as mean and manipulative as her grabby diner customers, like the harvest foreman Mac (Richard Alexander), who tries to exploit the tension between her and Lem to break them apart. Kate had gone to the country thinking that she'd be escaping the urban grind and the soul-numbing artificiality of the city. In her cramped city apartment, billboards had provided her only window into natural vistas, and she tried to approximate the allure of the natural world with a wind-up mechanical bird kept in a cage, a toy that she then brings with her to the country, where it in turn provides a connection back to the city.
Murnau, even while critiquing simplistic dichotomies between city and country, still captures the moody beauty of the countryside, the lure of the open fields, the sensuous gloom of a dark night with a pale moon hanging low in the sky above the farmhouse. The film's gorgeous imagery is especially mesmerizing during the stunning, incredibly tense climax, in which the family and their hired hands must rush to bring in the harvest before a threatening hailstorm blows in and destroys the crops. While the wind kicks into a frenzy and the men labor outside, the brewing trouble between Lem and Kate comes to a head as Mac stirs up a confrontation with Lem's father. The stormy, foreboding atmosphere constantly threatens to explode in various ways, and the tension builds with the increasingly intense wind outside. Murnau's images are loaded with drama, particularly in the way in which he frames taut two-shots in which the characters' poses are infused with their conflicted emotions. The images of Kate and Lem together, especially, are charged with their new, passionate, but fractured relationship — their postures simultaneously suggest intimacy and disconnection, as though they're both desperately pushing towards each other and pulling away, their intimacy polluted by the differences in their backgrounds and origins.
This is one of Murnau's very best films, a deeply moving and passionate film, a poignant romance that's tested but ultimately strengthened by the film's clearheaded skewering of the idealization that often goes along with such romances.
Friday, September 21, 2012
Though The Finances of the Grand Duke was F.W. Murnau's second straight literary adaptation in collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, it is a very different film from its moody, poetically melancholy predecessor, Phantom. It's a peculiar film for Murnau, a rapidly paced comic adventure that packs an epic serial's worth of action, disguises and revelations into a short, breezy comic thriller. The plot is chaotic and confused, obviously greatly condensed from Frank Heller's source novel, and most of its chapters begin with a lengthy title card introducing the new characters being added to a large and ever-growing cast of conspirators, counter-conspirators, dukes and princesses in disguise, financial speculators, revolutionaries and tricksters.
The plot concerns the impoverished and debt-plagued kingdom of Abacco and its cavalier Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke), who goes on the run with his financial minister Don Paqueno (Adolphe Engers) in order to avoid his debtors and possibly arrange a marriage to the far richer Princess Olga of Russia (Mady Christians). These royal plots are surrounded by a baffling array of shenanigans with various players trying to get control of Abacco or make money off the confusion that reigns in the struggling kingdom. The action is frantic, the film's humor arising mostly from the sheer overwhelming profusion of interlocking plots and strange occurrences, like one conspirator who's distracted at a key moment by a pair of animal impersonators. They're not the only characters in the film who engage in masquerade and disguise, as Olga is on the run from her notoriously cruel brother, falling in with the name-shifting Philipp Collins (Alfred Abel), a smirking spy, forger and con man who comically disguises her with drawn-on facial hair and sunglasses.
The film's madcap pace and slightly goofy pile-up of intrigues makes it very entertaining, but it's also a typically stylish film from Murnau, with his usual meticulous mise en scène. Murnau, together with cinematographer Karl Freund, shot much of the film in natural locations, with occasional expressionist two-dimensional sets mixed in, and the gorgeous seascapes, rocky vistas and Mediterranean locales add to the film's sense of globe-trotting adventure. There are numerous striking shots: images of sailing ships isolated in endless expanses of water, rocky coastlines with picturesque old ruins crumbling into the cliffs, underground grottoes where unscrupulous schemers discover mineral lodes and plan to exploit them.
There are also some very compelling, shadowy urban images that create a mood of late-night scheming and diplomatic espionage. When Collins meets Olga for the first time, rescuing the mysterious woman from her pursuers, Murnau cuts away several times to atmospheric images of the foggy, shadowy city. Fog rolls across the frame, obscuring the streetlights that cut through the darkness, as pedestrians stroll through the smoke across a bridge. The naturalistic cityscapes and sunny shorelines are contrasted against scattered moments of expressionist stylization, like a scene where Olga and Collins conspire against a backdrop of jagged, painted houses silhouetted on the set behind their car. In other scenes, cars cut through the night, speeding through the crowded city in a frantic chase, and a train sits waiting to depart, unleashing rolling clouds of steam before chugging slowly forward out of the station, nearly filling the frame with its black bulk.
At times, Murnau's imagery is playfully striking, as when a story about a "saucy little woman" is followed by a jaunty closeup of the woman in question, turning her head to smile at the camera, before her face fades into an image of the circus big top where she works. The film is fast and frenzied, packed with this kind of visual panache, making it a very pleasurable experience, uncharacteristic of Murnau in its story and tone but not in its style.
Friday, August 17, 2012
F.W. Murnau followed the daring, innovative masterpiece The Last Laugh with a much more modest, smaller-scale, but still interesting feature, his clever adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe. Murnau increases the distance from Molière's satire by making the actual Tartuffe story a film within the film, surrounded by a framing story that mirrors the one in the Molière tale. In this framing story, a young man (André Mattoni) is disinherited by his grandfather (Hermann Picha) because the old man disapproves of his grandson's choice of profession: a film actor. The old man is under the influence of a nasty housekeeper (Rosa Valetti), who's literally and metaphorically poisoning the old man and convincing him to change his will to make her the beneficiary rather than the grandson. It's a story that neatly mirrors Tartuffe, so the grandson, to convince his grandfather of the housekeeper's manipulation, disguises himself as a traveling projectionist and shows them both a film of Tartuffe.
This is the film within the film, in which Emil Jannings plays the titular con man, a religious preacher who convinces the wealthy Orgon (Werner Krauss) to shun material goods, even pushing away the affections of his wife (Lil Dagover) and eventually writing Tartuffe into his will. The choice to position this adaptation in this fashion, as a film within the film, is interesting because Tartuffe is all about exposing hypocrites, and for Murnau, whose films were almost always firmly grounded in moral messages, a primary vehicle for exposing hypocrisy and evil was of course the cinema. It's telling that the hero grandson of the framing story earns disapproval for pursuing a career in film acting, and yet it's through film that he exposes the evil of the housekeeper, delivering a fable that helps open the old man's eyes to the similar situation going on in his own film. Murnau opens and closes the film with text titles that implicitly direct the audience to similarly look for hypocrisy in their own experiences, thus extending the film's reach to a further layer.
Jannings, as always, delivers a stunning performance as the sinister Tartuffe, doing maybe too good of a job at evoking the false priest's slack-faced, dour malice, because he's such a horrible, vile creation that it's hard to believe that anyone could fall under his influence. He's continually scowling, his face always crooked: one eye bulging and another slitted, one corner of his mouth drooping below the other. His very face reflects his unbalanced, crooked nature, a hideous mask of menace, always frowning with disapproval and judgment, even as he secretly indulges in his own lusty appetites. This leads Orgon's wife Elmire to attempt a clever plan to seduce the manipulator, exposing him as a fraud by revealing his base, fleshy appetites. In one scene between them, Tartuffe disingenuously scolds Elmire while thrusting the edge of a bible against her cleavage, the holy book's proximity to the woman's ample breast enforcing the hypocrisy of this supposed holy man who denies the pleasure of others while illicitly thirsting for his own pleasure.
Murnau infuses these scenes with a strange eroticism, because eroticism is very much what's at stake in this story: when Orgon first returns home under the influence of Tartuffe, he won't even kiss his wife, who's obviously used to much more sensual and affectionate welcomes. And it's eroticism that eventually wins this game, as Elmire bares her shoulders and her cleavage for the monstrous Tartuffe, throwing her head back and caressing herself to break through his hypocritical façade of chaste religious devotion. Murnau shoots from a high angle, looking down on the woman as she reluctantly stretches and bares her skin to entice Tartuffe into betraying his denial of worldly pleasures.
Although this film is far simpler and more direct than Murnau's more elaborate expressionist masterpieces like The Last Laugh or Faust, it's still very visually expressive and evocative. Murnau's visual inventiveness is revealed in small but telling touches. Elmire, grieving over her husband's wayward devotion to the trickster Tartuffe, stares at a portrait of Orgon in a locket and cries over him, the tears falling on the picture and distorting it, creating a warped vision of Orgon that looks more like the melty-faced Tartuffe himself. Later, that prophecy seems to come true in the scene where Orgon spies on Tartuffe with Elmire, and the con man catches on to the trap by glimpsing Orgon's distorted, elongated face reflected in a coffee pot, staring out from between the curtains behind Tartuffe.
The film sticks to a few minimalist, claustrophobic sets, and Murnau fills them with dense shadows, the house encased in darkness because the spartan Tartuffe despises luxuries like lights. This provides an opportunity for striking shots like the one where the family's maid creeps up the stairs holding a candle, her profile extended onto the wall in front of her. Though Tartuffe is never as visually sumptuous or restlessly inventive as Murnau's best work, these kinds of striking images make it still an interesting, low-key film. It's also notable as Murnau's tribute to his chosen medium, positioning the Molière tale in a framework that confirms the cinema's power to explore morality and affect viewers' minds and hearts.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Though F.W. Murnau immediately followed his iconic vampire tale Nosferatu with a film called Phantom, there is nothing supernatural about this dreamlike examination of desire and obsession. It's the story of Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel), a mild-mannered and honest city clerk who's lost in the "dream world" of books, a shy and quiet man who lives with his mother and siblings and says that, for him, books give him experiences that he could never have in his actual staid life. Lorenz is a boringly decent man, closed off from the world and from sensual experience; when he's not in his room reading, he's at his dull job, where he always shows up late because he's such a dreamer, or in the bookstore, where the owner's daughter Marie (Lil Dagover) shyly loves him from a distance without ever expressing her feelings for him. It's a routine and quiet life, abstracted and restrained, with Lorenz's biggest thrills coming from literature, his greatest ambitions contained in the poems that he secretly writes.
This all changes one day when he's run down in the street by a woman driving a carriage. She stops and stands over him, and as he comes to, he's hypnotized and enthralled by the sight of her face, and he becomes obsessed with her. It's sudden and utterly illogical, an abrupt break in the linear path of this man's solitary, predictable existence. In that moment, he loses all sense of perspective, and everything else in his life melts away into insignificance; all he can do from this point on is frantically pursue this woman, about whom he knows nothing beyond a brief glimpse of her face. He eventually finds out that she is Veronika (Lya de Putti), the daughter of a wealthy family, unattainable to a lowly and pathetic clerk. As he desperately chases her, he's fended off by her servants and her parents, and he begins making one terrible decision after another, totally losing control of himself and forsaking the morality that had once defined his life. He is now solely "a poet... a man with no luck... who chases a shadow... a phantom!"
It's a stock melodramatic narrative that Murnau treats as melancholy poetry. The melodrama is especially recognizable in the way that Lorenz's descent into madness and misery parallels his sister Melanie's (Aud Egede Nissen) similar path into decadence and sin, in her case motivated simply by boredom with a gray, workaday lower-class life — she didn't need Lorenz's excuse of a sudden, consciousness-erasing obsession to leave behind the safety of home for taverns and trashy hotels. The film is somewhat slow and plodding at times, its minimal incidents stretched out between long periods of sensuous stasis. In some ways, though, this quality only adds to the dreamlike, hypnotized nature of Lorenz's experiences.
The film's best moments are Lorenz's periodic departures into daydreaming fantasy, signaled by shots that go slowly out of focus until the world is rendered as vaguely defined shapes and indistinct blurs, gradually losing tangibility so that dreamlike images of impossible love can take form, bright and brilliant, briefly seeming as real as the physical world, if not even more so. These images brilliantly convey Lorenz's disconnection from the world, the way he's sucked into this ephemeral world of dreams, the mere momentary sight of a woman's face destabilizing his world until it seems to be fading away, replaced by reveries and imaginings. He never sees the woman again, but he can't stop thinking about her. He imagines her carriage as a ghostly presence superimposed on the world, always just out of his reach. He imagines her face, surrounded by fog, a phantom, the ghost of a memory. He even finds her doppelganger, a woman (also played by de Putti) who looks just like his beloved but is far more worldly and accessible, as long as he can shower her with borrowed money and expensive goods, squandering his reputation and everything he has for some ephemeral pleasure with this woman who's only an echo of his real desire — although counter-intuitively, this echo is more material and tangible than the ghostly original for whom she's standing in.
Phantom would be just another 1920s melodrama of corruption and redemption if not for Murnau's expressive, poetic aestheticization of Lorenz's logically inexplicable downfall. It's a gorgeous and rigorous film, with Lorenz continually framed by doorways and mirrors, which suggest separation from the world. His sister Melanie, too, is introduced doing her makeup in a cracked mirror, half her face missing as she mugs and purses her lips in the glass, foreshadowing her brokenness. The final few chapters are especially haunting, as Lorenz's world collapses around him, even literally collapsing in a sequence where the buildings of the town seem to tip over on him, the shadows of their spiked spires chasing him along the streets, an effective bit of trick photography that Murnau would then reuse for The Last Laugh.
Despite its formal beauty and dreamy qualities, Phantom isn't one of Murnau's strongest movies. Its appeal is in the way Murnau takes a melodramatic narrative and strips it down to a core of almost surreal, and certainly irrational, emotional breakdown.
Monday, March 5, 2012
The Last Laugh was a crucial landmark in the history of the cinema. F.W. Murnau's 1924 classic was a dazzling technical feat that signaled several significant leaps forward in the early cinema: not only was it a work of pure visual artistry, with no dialogue intertitles, but Murnau and his crew (a prestigious group including cameraman Karl Freund and assistance from Edgar G. Ulmer) invented the first dolly shots in film and the first uses of subjective camerawork. Murnau freed the previously static camera from its moorings, and the results were stunning. The film's expressive, potent style movingly renders the story of a hotel porter (Emil Jannings) who is demoted for being too old and out of shape to properly do his job anymore. This is an unrecoverable blow for him, because everything he is, his entire sense of self-worth and identity, seems to be tied up in his job. In the film's opening scenes, he struts around the hotel, with bellboys scurrying to assist him in his work, and he obviously takes great pride in his puffed-up image, with his ornate, militaristic uniform. He waddles from the hotel to the curb, guiding guests in or out, summoning cabs, carrying bags, his girth straining proudly against the stiff front of his uniform with its rows of shiny buttons.
At home, he is equally proud, and when he enters the courtyard where he lives, everyone jumps to attention as though greeting a visiting dignitary, the men doffing their caps while he salutes. He walks stiffly, in obvious pain, his huge gut thrust out in front of him, exhausted from a hard day of work but still happy with his self-image, his view of himself as someone important. Even if it takes a tremendous effort to keep his back straight after each day, he endures the discomfort for the sake of the pleasure he gets from feeling so important and respected. When he's demoted from this proud position, his grand uniform rudely stripped from him, it shatters his world so badly that he can never recover, his job was so integral to his feelings of self-worth and happiness. The world is literally bent out of shape: leaving work after finding out about this change, the porter feels as though the hotel itself is going to crush him, in an extraordinary effects shot where the building seems to warp downwards towards the old man.
Later, drunk at a wedding, the porter sways and staggers, and the camera sways with him, tracing jittery arcs around the room from the old man's point of view, as his gaze drunkenly skips around the room. This subjective perspective aligns the audience with the old porter's attempt to erase his feelings of failure and abjection in revelry. This then fades into a dream sequence in which everything is hazy and distorted as though in a funhouse mirror, while the porter fantasizes about being restored to his old job and displaying a feat of tremendous strength, easily hefting a bulky trunk above his head with one hand. It's a fantasy of power and control, an assertion of the masculine virility that he now feels he's so completely lacking. This is a depiction of a society in which those who are past their peak are cast aside without further care, their will to live drained by the cruelty of the world's disregard. Even the porter's own family, when they learn of his new lowered status, quite literally recoil from him in horror, as though they're seeing a monster. It's almost comically exaggerated, but it makes the point: if a man's self-image is so thoroughly dependent on such shallow signifiers, on shiny uniforms and hollow prestige, then it is very easy indeed to tear him down and destroy him.
There's also a class component to this story, in that the porter's pride in his job and his uniform only causes him to be content in his relative poverty. He returns home to a decrepit, cramped tenement apartment and struts around as though he's an important and wealthy man, but actually he's a servant with a nice costume and an inflated sense of his position, which distracts him from his actual class status. Jannings' performance is remarkable, communicating all this complex emotion and social angst through his body language and his expressive eyes, about the only part of his face that's visible behind his ornate facial hair. When the porter learns of his fall from grace, he tries to keep up appearances by stealing back his old uniform, but it proves to be not enough. Whereas he used to return home with his chest puffed out, walking with a regal manner, his confidence is shaken now, and he skulks into the courtyard, hunched over, anxiously looking around as though he wants to simply disappear into the shadows. He has to remind himself to stand up straight and try to project confidence, but as he walks towards his apartment, his slouch returns, slowly but surely, and soon he's scurrying home past the laughter and disapproval of the neighbors who were once so awed by his seeming dignity.
The film has no textual titles except brief ones at the beginning and before the tacked-on, studio-mandated epilogue. Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer convey everything entirely through visuals, through performances. The complete lack of dialogue text is very refreshing, preventing the film from getting bogged down in endless reading breaks between images. Even in the one scene where Murnau uses text within the mise en scène, this text isn't simply a static paragraph. The porter learns of his demotion to restroom attendant through a letter, and Murnau displays this letter onscreen. But when the porter gets to the part that is for him the key phrase — the humiliating line that attributes this change to his "age and frailty" — the camera tracks along the words, following his eye as he takes in this disheartening phrase. The image then begins to blur, as if with tears, confirming that this is the first subjective shot in the film — and the first subjective shot in the then-short history of moving pictures! Even with the novelty long since faded, shots like this are incredibly affecting and bracing, as are the graceful tracking shots that zero in on the porter's distraught face at key moments.
The film proper ends with a haunting, stark shot of the porter slumped over in the restroom, totally broken and resigned to his fate. Murnau and Mayer wanted to end the film with the protagonist's sad death, completing their theme of a man crushed by his society's limiting ideas of a man's worth. The studio wanted a happier resolution, though, and Murnau and Mayer technically fulfill that mandate with a cynical, absurd epilogue that's practically dripping with sarcasm. It's even preceded by a title that explicitly identifies this ending as a deus ex machina, an intervention of the filmmakers with no relation to reality. In this ending, the porter is saved from his fate by an unlikely inheritance from a wealthy stranger, and he celebrates his good luck lavishly while doling out gifts to other unfortunate souls. The whole thing plays out as a ridiculous fantasy where it's entirely obvious that the director and writer have nothing but contempt for this addition to their art, and this tone winds up undermining the happy ending that the producers had wanted. In its very unreality, this epilogue simply reinforces the theme, since only an openly unrealistic miracle can save this sad man from what otherwise seemed an unavoidable and dismal fate.
Friday, February 17, 2012
F.W. Murnau's Faust was his final German film before the director emigrated to the USA for his all-too-brief career in Hollywood. This grand, extravagant epic, based on Goethe's version of the German legend about a man making a deal with the devil, represented Murnau's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink apotheosis of the German Expressionist silent style. It's a technical marvel, with dazzling effects that must have been utterly cutting edge at the time and today still have tremendous charm and power. This is especially true of the film's opening section, in which the devil makes a wager with an archangel over the soul of Faust (Gösta Ekman), a good man who the devil, in an echo of the Biblical story of Job, promises he can corrupt. Faust is a man of great faith and wisdom, old and wise and well-respected in his community. But he is nevertheless corrupted by the devil's representative Mephisto (Emil Jannings, in a scenery-devouring role), first by appealing to his very best instincts, his desire to help people, then by tempting him with power, then with increasingly base and material temptations.
The film's opening section provides Murnau with the opportunity to unleash a barrage of visual effects, showing the devil towering over a scale-model town, stretching his black wings to blot out the sun, kicking up clouds of dust that spread the plague. Sinister skeletal riders soar through the sky, and the devil's face appears floating in the clouds, taunting the people of the town. Faust, faced with this plague, appeals to both science and God, but both fail him; he can do nothing to cure the disease, and in a fit of desperation, after burning both his religious and his scholarly books, he decides to summon a demonic force to his aid instead. He goes to the crossroads, that mythic site of hellish bargaining, and as he conducts the ritual, Murnau draws a glowing ring of fire around him, fiery circles hovering hazily in the air around Faust, as the demon Mephisto magically materializes by his side.
Mephisto appears first as a ratty, stooped beggar with sinisterly glowing eyes, haunting the terrified Faust, who already regrets summoning this creepy creature, and later as a courtly, vampiric figure in black robes and a jaunty cap with a feather sticking out of it. In either guise, he's a mischievous trickster guiding Faust into the bargain that will doom him. Faust believes at first that he's only doing this to help people, but he's soon seduced by sensual and sexual pleasures, by the lure of power and greed and lust. The film calms down a little stylistically after this initial flurry of baroque visual overload, and when Mephisto transforms Faust into a young man — in order to pursue first a libertine duchess (Hanna Ralph) and then the virginal young Gretchen (Camilla Horn) — the film settles down into a much more understated melodrama, albeit one that takes place amidst the deformed architecture and spiky shadows of the elaborately designed sets.
Faust's romance with Gretchen is what ultimately saves him — the film ends with an angel defeating the devil, citing the power of love, liebe, and the word appears surrounded with a glistening halo of light — but Murnau is somewhat irreverent in his depiction of this tragic romance. Part of it is that Jannings' Mephisto is just so much more appealing and fun to watch than the smooth-faced, feminine young Faust, who's very much cast in the mold of the usual bland silent-era heroes despite his deal with the devil.
Mephisto is the choice part here — although Gretchen's leering giant of a brother (William Dieterle) somewhat unintentionally gives Mephisto a run for his money as the creepiest character in the film. Mephisto is an incarnation of the devil as an avatar of fun, dancing around in the shadows making mischief, mugging wildly for the camera in his agony at the sight of a cross, stalking around with his rapier sticking out the back of his robes like a stiff tail. The film, despite its ultimate message of love and spiritual uplift, has some pretty perverse and provocative ideas about good and evil, confirming the impression that the latter have all the fun.
In one early scene, the plague inspires an apocalyptic preacher who urges the people to repent and pray, the cross he holds looming large within the frame. But this somber, morbid religious assembly is interrupted by a parade of revelers who take the opposite approach, laughing at death and celebrating feverishly since life is so short. There's no question which approach Murnau makes seem more appealing, as the partying villagers briefly stop beneath the preacher, the camera angled down to leer at the women with their cleavage spilling out of their tops, laughing and drinking, their sensuality splayed out beneath the preacher with his cross. To cap off this scene, the devil strikes down the preacher, suggesting that goodness and piety are no guarantees in a world where Hell has as much influence as Heaven.
Mephisto is the most visible embodiment of this sensibility. Jannings, an actor who knew very well how to play big without sacrificing subtlety, rips into the part but never comes across as hammy, instead just communicating this sinister devil's delight in his evil deeds, his pop-eyed intensity and insanity. His best showcase is Mephisto's playful flirtation with Gretchen's matronly alchemist aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert), which serves as a parodic counterpoint to the love scenes between Gretchen and Faust. Gretchen plays the "he loves me, he loves me not" game with a flower she picks, and Mephisto repeats the gesture with eye-rolling mockery using a mushroom, sticking shards of it in his mouth as he pulls them off the crown.
Murnau cuts back and forth between these two romances throughout this scene, employing the comic, ribald interplay of the demon and the alchemist as a tonic for the conventionally romantic pursuit of Gretchen by Faust. Mephisto is both randier than the human — putting a necklace on the old woman, he cups her breasts in his hands, then recoils as though disappointed in what he'd felt — and much funnier, as he responds to his paramour's attempts to kiss him by pushing her cap over her face and running away. The whole sequence ends, not with Faust proposing to Gretchen, but with Marthe lovingly taking a piece of mushroom and stuffing it into her shirt as a souvenir, while Mephisto, fleeing the scene, turns back towards the camera, and spits out a mouthful of chewed-up mushroom bits, blowing a raspberry at all this romance and sentimentality.
Though Jannings is the film's most powerful presence and easily steals every scene he's in, Murnau masterfully shifts the film's focus and its sympathies to Gretchen for the increasingly poignant final act, in which the young girl suffers greatly for her involvement with the corrupt Faust. Horn delivers a sweet, pure performance, radiating light and decency, and Murnau draws visual parallels between the girl and both the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc in the film's final stretch. The image of Gretchen in the snow, a shawl wrapped around her head, the tears on her cheeks frozen into delicate white crystalline patterns, is breathtaking and heartbreaking, a tragically beautiful evocation of the Virgin with child. The film, like many of the Faust legends upon which it's based, Goethe's included, pulls back from the darkness at the very last second. But this momentary redemption, as affecting as it is, is in many ways overpowered by Murnau's far more vivid presentation of suffering, corruption, shadow and fog, and the sheer grinning, mischievous fun that is the evil in the world.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
It's difficult to think of what can possibly be said now about F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Based on one of the most famous horror novels in the world, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Murnau's film was the first adaptation of the vampire legend to the cinema, and a model and inspiration not only for every vampire tale to follow it, but for much of the horror genre in film. Considering its age and the extent to which its images and ideas have penetrated the popular culture discourse, the film has held up remarkably well. Pop culture tends to devour art, and any image or icon that passes into the popular vernacular tends to lose its aura of mystery and uniqueness, especially after enough time has passed for the various reiterations of this image to attain some prominence themselves. This deterioration still has yet to take place for Murnau's blood-sucking Count Orlok, played with a ghastly stiffness and creepiness by Max Schreck. Schreck's mimed performance, so famously horrifying, owes as much to his unnaturally tall, bony form and gaunt face as it does to his plodding movements and wide-eyed stare. It's a very physical performance, with Orlok embodied in every inch of the actor's body and movements. He's a horrifying figure, wispy and almost even fey but with a sinister allure anyway.
Clearly, Orlok is a powerful cinematic icon, one who has continued to exercise a dramatic pull on the genre of the horror film, so it's a shame that Murnau keeps him off-screen for so long. The story of Dracula may be familiar now, but this first adaptation treats the tale's developmental early stages at great length, unfortunately including a great deal of exposition that in a modern context seems largely unnecessary. It takes half an hour for Orlok to appear at all, before which the story focuses on the young real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder). In E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, a parodic dark comedy based on the making of Nosferatu, von Wangenheim is mercilessly mocked for his melodramatic acting, and the representation of his acting style in that film isn't even exaggerated too much, if at all. He's the ultimate silent movie ham, reacting to good news like a schoolboy skipping off to school, and to bad with moping gestures and eye-rolling, playing to the back row at every moment. He's the kind of actor who, when he sees a table full of food, widens his eyes, licks his lips, and runs gleefully to dig in. As a result, the scenes between Hutter and his wife, before Hutter goes off to Transylvania to conduct a transaction with the mysterious Count Orlok, are almost unwatchably saccharine, even though Schröder is far better in her role. Her Ellen looks vampiric from the very beginning of the film, with the same gaunt face, black-rimmed eyes, and wild stare as Orlok. She thus signals her inevitable doom right from her very first appearance, solely with the intensity of her emotional reactions and her sensitivity. She mourns for the "death" of flowers that her husband picked for her, and later she seems to sense Orlok's presence in ways that nobody else does besides his crazed servant Knock (Alexander Granach).
In fact, Ellen is a key figure in the film's first truly striking scene (which unfortunately comes about 40 minutes in, a not insignificant amount of time to wait for something interesting), in which Orlok assaults Hutter at the former's castle lair. Murnau cuts back and forth between this attack (mostly suggested through the projection of Orlok's sinister shadow on the wall) and scenes of Ellen back home, seized by nightmares and an inexplicable terror. The parallel editing between these two discrete events, taking place quite some distance apart, is especially powerful for the way it links Ellen and Orlok, making inevitable their eventual meeting in the film's final scene. At the end of the scene, Orlok looks back over his shoulder, casting his eyes towards the right side of the screen, and Murnau cuts away to a shot of Ellen, reaching her arms out towards the left edge of the screen, as though gesturing towards the vampire. The juxtaposition of these two shots give the distinct impression that Orlok is actually looking at Ellen, staring at her across vast gulfs of space with an unimaginable bloodlust. It's one of the film's most mysterious and haunting moments.
Of course, Orlok's desire for Ellen was already established before this, in the scene where the vampire catches a glimpse of a photo of her that Hutter carries. Orlok grasps the amulet containing this picture, bringing it up close to his face with his clawed fingers, and admiringly looks back at Hutter, telling him what a pretty neck his wife has. This line, with its obvious sexual undercurrents, is indicative of the way that Murnau plays up the sexuality of the vampire myth. This version of the Dracula story is unique, especially, for the way in which it makes the hero's transaction with the vampire seem like he's selling out his own wife for the monster's use. Immediately after the scene where the vampire praises Ellen's photo, he reiterates the terms of their bargain: he will be buying the abandoned house immediately across the street from Hutter's own home. Hutter has already left his uneasy wife alone to worry while he traveled a great distance, motivated only by greed. But in this scene it is apparent that what's at stake is not just a house back in Hutter's hometown, but the neck and blood of Ellen herself.
The crisp parallel editing of the Orlok/Ellen scene, which culminates in that meaningful cross-continental gaze between vampire and victim, is soon carried over into the second half of the film as Orlok races to realize his rendezvous with Hutter's wife. The entire second half of the film is thus structured on parallel editing of this kind, cutting between Orlok's journey by ship, Ellen waiting wistfully at home for Hutter's return, Knock's anxious time in jail awaiting his master, and the weakened Hutter's mad race to get to Ellen before Orlok does. Murnau's sense of pacing and dramatic tension occasionally slackens in these scenes, and the material with Knock seems entirely extraneous, especially since his character of the bug-eating servant isn't nearly as interesting or fleshed-out as it is in other variations on this tale. But even when the narrative temporarily goes slack, Murnau's brisk crosscutting between the different simultaneous events always promises a continuation of the action and a slow build-up of tension that finally explodes in the long sequence on board Orlok's ship.
This segment contains one of the film's most justifiably famous shots, with the camera positioned in a cargo hold and angled upwards at the vampire as he stalks by, walking with a strange sideways motion like a crab, his claws extended and his eyes glinting. But as creepy as Schreck is here, a handful of isolated shots of the ship itself are equally eerie. Murnau shoots the sailing vessel floating aimlessly, looking completely abandoned even before it really is depopulated by Orlok's efforts. In several shots, Murnau simply allows the boat to drift through the frame, a black silhouette seen from a distance with no activity on its decks, like a ghost ship gliding through the water. Another shot angles the camera up from the deck to catch the sunlight filtering through the sails above, a quietly beautiful shot that serves to further emphasize the ship's lifelessness; it's a shock (not to mention an anticlimax) when Murnau finally gives in and shows a few scenes of activity with the boat's crew. The scenes of Orlok's arrival in Hutter's town are similarly anticlimactic. There's something almost comical about the way he slinks into town, skulking through the main square while lugging a giant coffin under his arm, looking ridiculously undignified. This is doubtless the streak of silliness in Murnau's vampire that Merhige picked up on for Shadow of the Vampire. There's a real and very weird sense of the quotidian about Orlok, as in the early scene where he greets Hutter personally and explains the lack of servants by the late hour, as though he needs to justify why such a great personage should be doing his own chores. This winds up being even more unsettling, giving Orlok a warped human quality to play off against his more otherworldly aspects. A similar vibe runs through the scenes of his arrival, and he only manages to maintain some lordly dignity in the haunting shot where he arrives at his new home standing on a raft, the coffin still under his arm. Murnau shoots this arrival from a distance, capturing the dilapidated grandeur of this collapsing manse with Orlok's spindly form gliding towards it.
As a whole, Murnau's Nosferatu is a somewhat uneven masterpiece, if that term makes any sense. It's largely held together by the strength of a handful of iconic shots and images, often with long dull or purposeless stretches in between. The treatment of text is especially problematic, although not necessarily atypical for the silent era. The dialogue intertitles are relatively sparse and sparingly used, but Murnau makes extensive use of a variety of textual materials, including letters, books on the supernatural, ship's logs, and various other documents. This is doubtless inspired by the nature of Stoker's original epistolary novel, formed entirely from back and forth correspondence. But it's distracting when the film so often diverts from its wonderful images into lengthy text passages explaining various pieces of vampire lore or other expository details. When Murnau fills up the screen with such pseudo-scientific explanations of vampires, it's at least understandable in the context of the genre, but when he takes the opportunity to display Hutter's innocuous letter to his wife, in full, not just once but twice, one begins to suspect that he's either just filling up time or doesn't realize how these interruptions kill the narrative's momentum. Despite these imperfections, Nosferatu remains a horror classic for very good reason. There has never been a more memorable screen vampire than Max Schreck's Count Orlok, and in comparison to his raw, sensual performance even Bela's Lugosi's smooth, urbane version of the monster can't compare. Orlok is the iconic film vampire, a pure force of evil and unfettered desire, growing so rapturous (and ravenous) at the mere sight of blood that he can't resist breaking with decorum and sucking the blood from his houseguest's injured thumb. If Lugosi's later Dracula is a vampire of the heart or the head, Schreck's Orlok is purely a vampire of the stomach.