A reminder, if needed, of how rigorous the film-maker can be (even more so than the theatre director, the musician, the novelist, no matter how unlikely the nature of his medium may make that seem). Moliere’s words are necessarily forsaken in an adaptation of his work during the silent era, but no matter for Murnau makes up for the loss of something of Moliere by bringing something of Murnau instead, and teasing out things fundamental to the cinema.
Tartuffe was an assignment for UFA, a necessary undertaking to secure the passage of Murnau’s passion project Faust to the screen. Knowing fully what he was planning with Faust Murnau here opts for a counter-weight, a dedication to the alternative path away from the wild expansiveness and excess of the Goethe adaptation towards the most basic and stark elements of filmic language, given in this film a full exploration and expression. Murnau in Tartuffe is interested in those most simple of things which he reveals as actually ineffably complex and full of space, potential, hiding places: the depth or the flatness of the framed image (witness the grandfather, in the controversial framing story, rocking his rocking chair directly into the camera lens and becoming distorted and a being of great kinetic energy as a result), the intrusion of black into white and the subsequent struggle and balance of light and dark (see the stalking, sulking shadow that is Emil Jannings’ Tartuff in this great cream mansion), the psychological impact of prop and décor, the gestures and expressions of actors (more often caught in close-up here, and great definitive close-ups, than in seemingly any other Murnau film), the interplay of movement and the static, questions of perspective and the gap between reality and representation (the ‘reality’ of the theatre and the ‘representation’ of cinema, and vice versa, and the physical disguises of his characters). The effect is beguiling and oddly mysterious; great inward depth is found and the frame respected, and yet one feels the pull of an entire world (a shadow world) beyond its limits and borders.
Lil Dagover, bending slightly backwards and face upturned in mock-ecstasy and longing, illuminated by some supernatural force, is the sort of great definitive cinematic image of grace that Robert Bresson spent his career searching for.