Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sadhu aur Shaitan, the F W Murnau version

“Are we not sinning?” the married woman asks the Godman. “He who sins in secret does not sin!” he replies, smacking his lips. Then he opens the curtains to his bedchamber, gives her a meaningful look and climbs in. Earlier in the day the expression on his face was that of a man rapt in communion with a higher power, but now he’s a satyr anticipating worldly pleasures.

The scene is from a silent film made 85 years ago – F W Murnau’s condensed treatment of the Moliere play Tartuffe – but it vaguely reminds me of the Swami Nithyanand sex videos. Though there were no TV sting operations in the 1920s, this sequence IS a sting of sorts: Madame Elmira has set up a nighttime tryst to convince her gullible husband Orgon (hiding outside the door, watching through the keyhole) that his friend Tartuffe is a hypocrite masquerading as an ascetic. The husband intervenes just in time to save her honour and cast the scoundrel out. All ends well.

Being a huge fan of F W Murnau’s work – in particular Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise and Faust – I was pleased to find this film on DVD. Story-wise, it’s a simple-minded morality tale and most modern-day viewers would find it difficult to work up much sympathy for Monsieur Orgon and his wife, members of the noble class who are in danger of losing their expensive jewellery to the fraudster Tartuffe; it’s hard to really see these people as victims. But while Tartuffe doesn’t stand up to Murnau’s masterpieces, it’s still a very interesting film. There are visual connections to some of the director’s other work: for example, our first glimpse of Tartuffe (played by the great Emil Jannings) as he stiffly descends a staircase, prayer-book in front of his face, is spookily similar to solo shots of the vampire Nosferatu (even though Tartuffe looks like a well-fed cat while Nosferatu was lean and spider-like, and would never be caught dead - or Undead - with a prayer-book).

Murnau and his cinematographer, the legendary Karl Freund, repeat techniques that were used in The Last Laugh, and which were relatively new to filmmaking at the time: shooting from a low angle to make a character look threatening and predatory, or from a high angle to make someone seem small and helpless. There’s some brilliant self-indulgence too, as in the startling shot where Elmira weeps over a small photo of her husband that she keeps in a locket: a teardrop falls on the picture and slowly glides down his face, grossly enlarging each of his features as it goes.

But the really notable thing about Tartuffe is its unusual (for the time) use of the movie-within-a-movie technique. Its “framing” device is a contemporary story about a housekeeper persuading her nearly senile employer to disinherit his grandson and leave everything to her instead. (These lower classes! Always preying on the moneyed! And she’s slowly poisoning him too!) The grandson is turned out of the house, whereupon he breaks the fourth wall by scampering at the camera, removing his hat, looking directly at us, and saying, “You, who witnessed this scene, may rest assured that I shall not give in without a struggle! I shall rescue my grandfather from this humbug!”

Shortly afterwards, he arrives at the house disguised as the proprietor of a “touring cinema”. Ringing a bell vigorously, he proclaims that the film he wishes to screen is “a story about saints and sinners”.

“We want no cinema!” sniffs the housekeeper from the window. “Pictures! Moving pictures! What nonsense!” snorts the old man.

But they both give in and the boy sets up a screen, complete with little curtains, on the living-room wall. Then he blows the candles out, darkening the room, and starts the projector with a flourish. (There’s something mystical about this buildup. He resembles a conjuror about to display his cleverest trick - it made me think of the film The Illusionist.) The camera that has so far been showing us the framing story now moves into the screen on the wall, and the cautionary story of Tartuffe begins.


Cinema was relatively young in 1925, with lots of questions being asked about whether it was capable of raising people’s consciousness (as opposed to “simply” telling amusing stories). In Tartuffe, we see a pedantic demonstration of the medium's power to warn viewers about the evils around them. (The “lesson” being that the world is full of pious hypocrites and that there could be one sitting right next to you – perhaps watching the same film that you’re watching!) It’s self-conscious but it’s inventive, and a lot of fun. And when the boy starts playing the Tartuffe film, I can’t help thinking of the anchors on TV news channels today, hysterically ringing bells (in the form of “breaking news” flashes), claiming to hold up a mirror to our sordid times.

P.S. Orgon and Elmira are played by Werner Krauss and Lil Dagover, who also co-starred a few years earlier in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Krauss was only in his mid-thirties when he played the fierce-looking Caligari in that film, and his clean-shaven, goofy appearance in Tartuffe makes for quite a contrast to the earlier role.


[Some earlier posts on silent films: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Nanook of the North, Robert Bloch and Lon Chaney, Mizoguchi and the benshi]

16 comments:

  1. Was the "film within a film" device fashionable in the 20s? Even Keaton's Sherlock Jr employs it.

    “Pictures! Moving pictures! What nonsense!” snorts the old man.

    This is probably quite revealing of the society's attitude to motion pictures back then. One would think those early audiences of cinema would've been stunned by the sheer novelty of the moving image! Yet, they appear to have been quite cool towards the new innovation, deeming it to be a lowbrow bastard cousin of the legitimate theatre.

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  2. I've been thinking about it, but Sherlock Jr is the only other film I can recall from the period that uses the device so explicitly.

    ...deeming it to be a lowbrow bastard cousin of the legitimate theatre

    Yes, and it was probably also thought of in some circles as a cheap magic show, an elaborate bit of trickery. But the screening scene in Tartuffe conveys the ambivalence of some viewers very well. The old man and the housekeeper initially resist the screening, but once they agree to it they enter the living room fancily dressed up, as if they were going to an opera house. The medium appears to repel and awe them at the same time.

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  3. Yes, and it was probably also thought of in some circles as a cheap magic show, an elaborate bit of trickery.

    Jai: I sometimes wonder if there is a grain of truth to that seemingly naive view, in the context of silent pictures.

    Never been as much into silent pictures as talkies. I am not sure if even the greatest of them (take Sunrise for instance) can approach the subtlety and sophistication of the great talking pictures (say a Magnificent Ambersons or a Taxi Driver.

    Even a classic example of "pure cinema" like Rear Window won't be all that interesting if one were to turn off the volume and be deprived of the dialogue of John Michael Hayes.

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  4. It can be viewed as a separate art form where the visuals are accentuated in a selective recreation of reality. Think of a radio play - you don't have the visuals so all the expression has to fit in the audio.
    Same with silent movies.
    To compare them with talkies is like comparing apples with oranges.

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  5. Just read your post about benshis. Kurosawa's brother Heigo was one and he writes in his biography that benshis had their own fan clubs and people used to go to see movies because of them.
    When the talkies came along the benshis were in danger of losing their jobs.Heigo led a strike which eventually failed and he committed suicide.
    Have you seen other Mizoguchi movies like Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu? What do you think about them?

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  6. Rahul: Sansho and Ugetsu are the only other ones I've seen. Love them both. Have been wanting to write about Ugetsu but would like to see bits of it again first.

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  7. To compare them with talkies is like comparing apples with oranges.

    I'd add to that. It would be remiss to overlook the contribution made by people like Griffith, Murnau, Eisenstein, Chaplin and Keaton towards establishing the grammar of the new medium (something that was often facilitated by the fact that spoken dialogue wasn't an option) and paving the way for subsequent directors from Welles onwards.

    Even a classic example of "pure cinema" like Rear Window won't be all that interesting if one were to turn off the volume and be deprived of the dialogue

    Shrikanth: what an odd hypothesis. Even though Rear Window was directed by someone who believed in "pure cinema" and decried films that are mere "pictures of people talking", the fact is that it was conceived and made as a talking film. The audio combined with the visuals, often in complex ways, to make the whole film. If you turn off the volume, you no longer have the film that Hitchcock made.

    Having said that, a few film scholars might disagree with your view that it would no longer be too interesting if you switched off the volume. (Martin Scorsese, for one. He said in an interview that he loved watching Dial M for Murder with the sound turned off, and encouraged his students to do the same, to concentrate on the length and positioning of shots.)

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  8. I am not sure if even the greatest of them (take Sunrise for instance) can approach the subtlety and sophistication of the great talking pictures

    "Sophistication" manifests differently in different types of films. But if we take the rawest, most obvious definition: well, of course the silent cinema is less sophisticated than what came later. How could it possibly be otherwise? Study the trajectory of any art form. Even the lesser novels written by today's masters like Philip Roth and Ian McEwan can be more subtle and sophisticated than the greatest works of Dostoevsky or Dickens (in the sense of integrating their themes and ideas within the narrative rather than using such self-conscious devices as lengthy interior monologues that explicitly tell us what a character is thinking). But so what?

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  9. P.S. Forgot to link to this post, about von Stroheim's Greed.

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  10. It would be remiss to overlook the contribution made by people like Griffith, Murnau, Eisenstein, Chaplin and Keaton towards establishing the grammar of the new medium

    Agree. If cinema had begun with the talkies, it may have struggled in vain to distinguish itself from theatre.

    the fact is that it was conceived and made as a talking film

    Yes. But suppose Hitch had made the film back in 1927 in Britain, I don't think he'd have shot it too differently. But it is difficult to imagine this hypothetical 1927 version of the film being as much fun as the 1954 version.

    Nice analogy with literature. I have read neither Roth or McEwan. But I'm tempted to believe that cinema, for better or worse, has evolved a lot faster than literature. A lot of nineteenth century writers are still eminently readable. In contrast, several popular silent hits of the twenties were probably painful to watch by the mid thirties! (I'm referring to the average silent hit here and not bonafide classics like Sunrise or The General)

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  11. But I'm tempted to believe that cinema, for better or worse, has evolved a lot faster than literature. A lot of nineteenth century writers are still eminently readable...

    Shrikanth: Geez! You can't liken the difference between silent cinema and contemporary cinema (or even mid-30s cinema) to the difference between 19th century literature and today's literature! The two forms operate on entirely different time-scales. It would be more accurate to compare the evolution of literature over 4000-5000 years to the evolution of cinema over the past century.

    Go read the Epic of Gilgamesh (or even Aeschylus or Homer) in the original and let me know how eminently readable you find it - then we'll talk.

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  12. ...several popular silent hits of the twenties were probably painful to watch by the mid thirties!

    Just for perspective, several popular hits of the last decade were painful to watch in the last decade itself. Come, let's stop arguing now and discuss the merits of Pearl Harbor instead!

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  13. Great post there on Greed. That film underscores an important point about "realism" - every single technique that is thought to have been introduced by a movement like Italian neorealism, such as location shooting,deep focus etc. has existed in movies since before, in works of auteurs like Stroheim.

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  14. several popular hits of the last decade were painful to watch in the last decade itself.

    Agree. In any case, "ageing" of films is an overrated concern. Given a couple of hours, I guess it is better value for time to watch the best film of 1925 rather than the 20th best film of 2009. (I know the use of ranks sounds silly. Am deliberately using ranks to emphasise the virtues of survivorship bias).

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  15. Nice post, I hope I find the DVD somewhere :)

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  16. Some arbitrary thoughts on the sound vs silence debate, provoked by this thread -

    1. Sound pictures may ironically allow characters to be silent, keeping them from saying obvious things in intertiles.

    2. Silent cinema is probably better suited to comedy than talkies. The absence of sound helps us distance ourselves from the protagonists (say a Keaton). The emotional distance might make it easier for us to laugh at the caricatures on the screen.

    Whereas, Keaton in sound may not be as funny because sound lets us get too close to the character. When that happens, empathy replaces amusement as our dominant emotion.

    No wonder I find silent slapstick a lot more effective than modern slapstick (eg: Pink Panther, What's up Doc). Guess you're right about silent cinema being sophisticated in less obvious ways.

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