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4.0 out of 5 stars
Tartuffe - Masters of Cinema series [DVD]
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on 28 October 2009
This film should be appreciated as a masterpiece even though it hasn't got that many new developments from the process point of view.

It is a superb moral comedy directed by the cinema's greatest silent movie director, F W Murnau. Great intertitles and great acting from Emil Janings and the crew. Still some camera angles are very important in Tartuffe.

Overall the movie is worth to be part of your collection as should aslo: Faust, Der letzte Mann, Nosferatu, Sunrise, Phantom, City Girl and Tabu.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 January 2015
F.W. Murnau's Herr Tartuff is a rather underwhelming reworking of Moliere's Tartuffe that, the accompanying documentary on the DVD shows, clearly meant a lot to the director. Unfortunately, while he focused on the way religion (even the faux piety of the charlatan Tartuffe) repressed sexual desire - something the gay Murnau felt all too keenly - as Variety's amusing review at the time rather pertinently observed, 'French humour, seen through German eyes and finally placed before an American public is bound to suffer in the process.' And at times Murnau makes very heavy weather of it, laboriously setting up a bookending modern-day story in which a loathsome housekeeper (Rosa Velletti) persuades an old man to disinherit his grandson for bringing the family into disrepute by becoming an actor (a situation both Moliere and Murnau themselves faced) and trying to catch the avaricious hypocrite out by, er, disguising himself as a travelling projectionist and showing them a loose adaptation of Moliere's comedy of hypocrisy.

Not that there are many laughs when the story gets under way, with much angst as Ogron (Werner Krause) returns home a changed man thanks to the influence of his pious and ostensibly puritanical new friend Tartuffe, swearing off the pleasures of the flesh with his wife (Lil Dagover) and firing all but one of the servants. Naturally when Tartuffe finally makes his appearance halfway through the film it's clear to everyone but his new disciple that the proto-cult leader is the kind of charlatan who is out for everything he can get and is smart enough to see through Dagover's initial attempts to show him up. Emi Jannings plays it broad in a performance that alternates stone-faced solemnity with gurning that must have been a huge influence on Les Dawson but despite his breast fixation it's not one of his most memorable creations. Even were it not sandwiched between his remarkable turn in The Last Laugh and his much funnier Mephistopheles in Faust it's a bit of a disappointment. It's not so much that he does anything wrong as that he doesn't go for any but the most obvious notes.

There are some interesting touches, whether it's the young actor unexpectedly breaking the fourth wall to address the audience or a striking shot of Dagover's tears falling on her miniature portrait of her husband, and the ending gains an unintended frisson from Germany's subsequent history as the moral - `None of us is proof against hypocrites' - is spelled out. Yet it's a somewhat stodgy effort that feels like Murnau is more interested in the angst than the rapier wit. It seems that he wasn't initially too enthusiastic about the project despite Jannings and the studio's enthusiasm, and at times it seems as if he's trying to show the studio management that removed him from the "too sexy" 'Vaudeville' because he couldn't do sexy (presumably because of his homosexuality) that he could do sexual repression in a big way. The whole film is driven by the thwarted pursuit (and disgust) of sex, with the husband revolted by his wife and the wife in turn revolted by the unwanted guest who lusts after her and, like history, it plays first as tragedy and then as farce. It's the kind of thing that's fascinating on a thematic level and for how you can interpret it through the filter of Murnau's own life, but as a film it tends to come across as curiously flat and laborious.

It doesn't help that the currently available version on DVD is a very unsatisfying and curiously half-hearted restoration. While the German version no longer exists, prints from the three alternate versions made for export do survive, with the American copy in the best condition - but also the most heavily censored. Understandably this copy was chosen as the basis for the restoration, yet rather than incorporating missing scenes from the other versions (two of which are included in their entirety in the accompanying documentary along with other censor trims) it seems to be a restoration of the compromised American version. Yet it's not quite that either - while the young actor produces an onscreen playbill in English, a key letter is shown in its German version rather than the English one shot for export while the English intertitles have been replaced by German titles in what is assumed to be the style of the German originals (though only graphics for the main title survive).

The two key omissions are particularly problematic, since the scene where Tartuffe uses Ogron's guilt at prayer to persuade him to disinherit his wife and leave his fortune to him is missing while the ending is severely truncated and flows rather badly in the American version. An ending taken from a Swiss print is a lot more dramatic and flows much better, but is easily missed on the disc - it's included as an epilogue to the documentary included on the disc, but only after the end credits and enough black screen for the unsuspecting viewer to turn off the disc. It's particularly frustrating that the restoration makes minor steps to turn the film back into a German-language effort but doesn't go the whole hog and restore the censor cuts where better material was so clearly available since it's already something of a bastardised reconstruction, albeit a half-hearted bastard.

The documentary itself is something of the highlight of the disc. While it's a mixture of very dry narration and stills, cuttings and sketches from the production, it's a goldmine of fascinating information that makes the film sound so much more interesting than it is in its current incarnation. There's much on the history and development of the film, from the changes made to the play to Murnau's abandoned initial approach, as well as comparisons of the various surviving versions and some intriguing trivia and speculation (not least about Jannings' ex-wife Lucie Höflich, who played Dagover's maid, perhaps enjoying the scene where he gets repeatedly slapped a bit too much). In many ways it's really an illustrated lecture, but a fascinating one for anyone interested in Murnau that, for all its basic and unadventurous form, provides more interest and entertainment than the film it's about.
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on 8 February 2014
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 30 March 2015
Probably less good than Murnau's other more famous silent films, Tartuffe nevertheless shows his exquisite setups and ability to see the visual potential in the material. It is interesting how he chose to adapt a work whose meaning is largely carried by language, into a medium where this is of so little account. The result is arguably better than a filmed version of the play, in that Murnau has wrested it out of its original form to a large degree. He misses out quite a lot of Moliere's play, but adds a framing device of his own and has two scenes where Elmire attempts to seduce Tartuffe as the first falls flat due to a felicitous invention of Murnau's. It is not as funny as the play by quite a long way, but Emil Jannings does do a very good job of looking the absolute hypocrite with relish, and the way he tucks into his hearty breakfast is both funny and slightly unnerving. The house where it is set has some beautiful lines created by the stairs and doors, and is shot in sepia tones that have a very soft effect. The piano accompaniment is always apt. The illustrated booklet essay by R. Dixon Smith and 37-minute documentary fill out the picture for those that want to know the background, the film itself lasting only 64 minutes.
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on 9 October 2009
F.W. Murnau was probably one of the silent era's greatest filmmakers, with masterpieces such as Nosferatu and Der Letzte Mann. Masters of Cinema have been nice enough to bring us some of his best in great quality, with loads of extras and digitally restored images. Tartuffe is one of these, and while being a fan of the original play this was based on, I cannot get myself to fall in love with this film.

It has several of Murnau's usual tricks and solid craft, but what it lacks is that extra bit of clarity and ingenuity. The short running time doesn't really help either, and it feels as though there could have been significantly more depth to this. That being said, the atmosphere, cinematography and particularly the cast is still of high quality.

Still though, for any fan of Murnau and in particular the silent era this will remain an interesting watch, it has a lot of quality, but comes short in those areas where Murnau is at his very best. It doesn't have the same chilling atmosphere of Nosferatu, the brilliant storytelling of Der Letzte Mann nor the humanity and warmth of Sunrise. It is a well told film which doesn't really excel in any area, but remains a solid outing from one of the era's greatest masters.
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