The University of Wisconsin's Cinematheque each weekend shows a different free film for the public, and the winter/spring 2006 series "Journeys Into Night" focused on the German silent films of director F.W. Murnau.
Murnau's best known film, Nosferatu, launched the series, and I had to miss it. That night was a snowstorm of intimidating scale. The elements--deserted streets with only snowed-in cars parked along the side, and a pall of dread hanging in the air--might have been perfect circumstances to watch Nosferatu with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin. By all accounts, the theater was packed despite the weather. The last time I saw Nosferatu it was also packed--at the Organ Loft in Salt Lake City, one of my favorite places to watch films. The Organ Loft is a dance & dining hall near the heart of Mormonville, but in the evenings they put out some chairs on the dance floor and roll down a modest white screen, and the organist, either Blaine Gale or David Massey, pounds on the keys of the Mighty Wurlitzer (an organ that, in a previous life, accompanied many of these silent films when they were first-run), setting the pipes, which completely surround the audience, to a thunderous noise that will easily drown out your home theater's speakers. The seats at the Organ Loft are as uncomfortable as any theater seats can be--because they're not theater seats, just straight-backed chairs that were unstacked from the corner. During the best films, you don't really notice; The Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks was about two-and-a-half hours long and I was transported by the Mighty Wurlitzer, the cartoonishly surreal sets of William Cameron Menzies, and the swashbuckling of Fairbanks, so the chair and its damaging effect on my back was only noticed much later. At the Organ Loft we also saw The Phantom of the Opera and West of Zanzibar with Lon Chaney, and for Phantom, the organist donned a mask and even threw a little Andrew Lloyd Weber into the mix as he improvised his score. Nosferatu was memorable not just because I dragged my bemused parents to the theater, but because of the high Goth quotient in the crowd--a crowd that usually only consists of senior citizens, a couple of families, and the occasional younger film buff. The Goths will turn out for a silent film only if it's called "Nosferatu."
As talented as pianist David Drazin is (Chicago-based musician Drazin accompanied most of the Cinematheque Murnau screenings), I don't really think his performance could have lived up to my memory of the Mighty Wurlitzer's pulsating organ score on that Halloween in Salt Lake City. On the screen above the organist's head were projected the definitive Murnau images: the vampire played by Max Schreck beneath ghastly makeup (he's made to resemble one of the plague-infested rats that arrive with his coffin), the Expressionistic camera angles and black splashes of shadow. Nosferatu is based on Dracula, of course; the Bram Stoker estate sued, so depending on the print you're watching, the names may or may not stick to Stoker's novel. Murnau simplifies the book considerably--he's a great fan of simple, pure storytelling for his silent films--removing a multitude of sub-plots and secondary characters. (This is the antithesis to Coppola's film, which bent over backward to squeeze them all in.) It's taken this horror fan a while, but I now believe that Murnau's film is the greatest adaptation of the book. The key is not just Murnau's simplification, nor the Schreck performance (so good that 2000's Shadow of the Vampire hypothesizes that Schreck, played by Willem Dafoe, really was a vampire) or the German Expressionist touches; the key is the finale, in which Mina submits her body to the vampire, and he has his fill of her until the dawn arrives, when the rays of the morning sun cast him into oblivion. Murnau's films often divide reality along Manichean lines, but in Nosferatu he first shows a shading--that sometimes one has to submit to evil in order to perform good. This will recur most prominently in one of his finest films, Faust.
The next two films in the Cinematheque's series formed a double-feature, and that's just, as they're too slight to stand alone. The Haunted Castle falls into the "old dark house" category, a mystery that seems to have supernatural overtones, until all is explained and the mastermind is revealed in the final scene. This genre was worn to threads in the 20's and 30's, and Murnau doesn't depart from the formula too much. If it seems a step backward from Nosferatu, that's because it is: The Haunted Castle, made in 1921, is one of the earliest surviving Murnau films. Notably, the print we watched was a superior restoration, but with no English translation to the German intertitles--these were read off-screen by a German professor, and the fact of his disembodied voice provided the spooky factor that Murnau's strained (if charming) film lacked. We arrived late and the double-feature was packed, so my wife and I sat in the front row, where the film professors sit. (I could see why--the image completely engulfed us, and now in my memory it seems that we moved about within the film while the events unfolded.) The professor who sat next to me was scribbling away through the entire film, and hardly seemed to look up, so desperate was he to note down what he wasn't looking at. In one dream sequence, a boy gorges himself on the cake the chef wouldn't let him taste during the day; while a priest feeds him one morsel after another, he periodically turns to slap the chef. The audience laughed at each slap, and each time, the professor looked up from his notes, saw nothing, scribbled, and so on, like a mechanical extension of the mechanical pattern on the screen. I'm not sure that he ever saw what we were laughing at. It must have been a terrific essay, though.
The second feature, Journey Into Night, is typical of Murnau's melodramas, and not very exciting or imaginative, despite the title. The plot is Murnau simplicity: a rich surgeon leaves his fiancee for a showgirl, and shacks up with her in a fishing village. There, the showgirl falls for a blind painter. Despite this, the surgeon restores the painter's sight, and the painter and the showgirl leave together; finally, the surgeon returns to his fiancee. Not a remarkable shot in the film, so far as I can recall; at least The Haunted Castle had one memorable image, of a couple staring at each other across an impossibly tall corridor, the chasm in their relationship made visual in Expressionistic terms. Murnau lets the plot carry the weight in Journey Into Night, but this plot would be better served in something like The Blue Angel, years later. During this screening, there were no interstitial cards at all. Our helpful narrator provided reconstructed dialogue taken from the original script. With the title cards missing, the viewer got an unusual education in the art of silent filmmaking. Strange skips occurred in the action where the cards should have appeared. Often the actors would not even open their lips to speak, assuming the title cards would do the work for them; instead, they looked at each other meaningfully, as though telepathically projecting their dialogue. It was like watching a silent film as performed by the X-Men. But it was appropriate, too, for this retrospective. Murnau wanted to get rid of title cards; he wanted a pure cinema, storytelling with only images. He almost achieved it here, by accident, although the plot was only simple to decipher because of its predictibility. Journey Into Night is Murnau's earliest surviving film.
Phantom, made a year later, was only a slight improvement. Written by Thea von Harbou, who wrote many of the great early German films (including films of husband Fritz Lang), Phantom is another unremarkable melodrama with only a few touches of style. Once the plot is established--a poet pretends to have money and fame to impress a girl, while falling deeper into debt--you settle back and wait for some interesting technique. About the only thing I remember a couple of months later is a brief scene of the protagonist fleeing through the town square while the buildings seem to lurch toward him in pursuit. This illusion appears again briefly in his superior film The Last Laugh.
On the basis of my disappointment with the last two melodramas, I decided to pass on two other early Murnau films, The Burning Soil (1922) and The Grand Duke's Finances (1924). The notes by the Cinematheque about The Burning Soil give a good indication of the difficulty and luck required in discovering prints of silent films (so many nitrates of which were burned for the silver): "The Burning Soil is said to have been saved by a Jesuit priest, who bought a nitrate print of it at a sidewalk sale."
I did return for Tartuffe (1926). Based on the famous Moliere comedy about a debauched priest who lectures a young man on morality while attempting to seduce his wife, Murnau here frames the action with another, contemporary story: an estranged son returns to see his dying grandfather, who is about to will everything to her nurse, whom she believes loves her more. When the son realizes his grandfather is being poisoned by the greedy nurse, he forces the two to watch a play of Tartuffe, staged like the play within Hamlet to unmask the villain. Tartuffe, the priest of the play, is played by Emil Jannings, a German star of the stage and screen, today only known--if at all--for his role as the professor in The Blue Angel. In The Blue Angel he was the corrupted, but here he's the corruptor, and he relishes the part. The portly actor moves at a glacial pace with his head buried in the Bible, but when he notices his pupil's young wife, his eyes widen lecherously. I have a weakness for stories of debauched, hypocritical clergymen; Balzac's Droll Stories and The Monk are among my favorite novels. So I did enjoy this a great deal.
After a month-long break, the series resumed with one of Murnau's most famous, The Last Laugh (1924). Here we finally see Murnau moving away from the conventions of most silent films, most notably with completely absent title-cards; apart from a few documents or letters we read over the shoulders of the characters, and an introduction and epilogue, there's no dialogue or description of action. The audience is forced to become an active participant--not that the action is hard to follow. The story, as simple as any Murnau ever told, follows a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings again) who suffers first a demotion because of his old age, and then the humiliation of his friends when he's caught trying to fool them into thinking he's kept his old job. With the intertitles gone, Murnau concentrates more heavily on the symbolic importance of objects: the doorman's uniform, which he's forced to surrender; the letter of demotion that blurs while he struggles to read it; et cetera. The camera also begins to move with greater energy, sweeping toward and away from the characters in another effort to urge an emotional connection with the events--and it works. The oddest thing about the film is the playful, Tartuffe-like turn the film takes in its last act. As the protagonist's situation reaches its most dire moments, the absent narrator finally interrupts to deliberately force a happy ending upon the character. It's unbelievable, and that's the point. It's baffling, too, but the relief was palpable and the audience left smiling and happy, as though they couldn't care less that Murnau pulled a fast one on them. The title, in fact, refers to the "last laugh" that Jannings has on those who would try to push him aside; it's a laugh we're intended to share, despite the artificiality.
Faust (1926), finally, is one of Murnau's greatest achievements, and an appropriate close to the program. Based on Goethe's work, it's all Murnau: a simple story told almost entirely by images, with a comic turn by Jannings as Mephisto (back in Tartuffe mode, though this time he darts rapidly across the screen), and visual flourishes every bit as striking as those in Nosferatu. Gosta Ekman plays Faust as a hypocritical old man who rushes to invoke Satan when things turn foul for his village, struck by the plague, then runs away when it works and Mephisto arrives; distancing himself from Mephisto's debauched suggestions, Faust is also quick to take them up, and top them, when he has the actual objects of desire set before him. The imagery in this film is stunning right from the start. Jannings, his skin caked in paint, his eyes glowing white, stands before two vast wings while confronting a glowing archangel whose jagged, thorny sword seems to have been cut from the walls of a Caligari set. A few moments later, when we see the village, it too seems to be taken straight from Caligari--the buildings press together as if for warmth, the pointed roofs nearly touching, and the roads are dark, precipitously sloping alleys. Mephisto looms above the miniature city like the demon from the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia (and a fantasia this is), and from his outstretched wings billows a black smoke--the plague. Faust is first tempted by Mephisto when he throws his Bible into the fire. The book snaps open upon the flames and the pages turn to a Satanic incantation ("I guess when you throw the Bible on the fire, it turns into the Necronomicon," my wife commented). Faust is told to stand at a crossroads and call to Mephisto three times; this he does after drawing a circle in the dirt below him, and after calling to Mephisto, the circle turns to fire and rises above his head like the rising rings around the robot in Metropolis. Mephisto, who was previously seen riding a hairy beast through the sky beside Death and another monstrous rider, now appears as a monk, although with the same sinister glowing eyes. This is when Faust flees, which is, come to think of it, kind of understandable. Faust finally is persuaded to accept Mephisto's contract on a "trial" basis. For one day, he can have Satan as his servant. They first set out to seduce a duchess in another land, and for this Arabesque sequence Faust rides a flying carpet over a pretty amazing miniature landscape. David Drazin, our pianist, outdid himself, quickly turning out an improvised score that sounded like it was coming from a full orchestra, but perfectly dialing it back into a sumptuous march as the camera settled upon a dozen dancing ladies gliding toward a throne. I should also mention that by this point in the film, Jannings has now donned dyed-black hair and a black cape, so that he looks something like Dracula. He has a terrific scene midway through the film, in one of the most brilliant digressions from the source material, in which he seduces a portly middle-aged woman simply because he can. She falls in love with him while he tries to shake her (of course, he cops a feel before leaving), and the action is hilariously paralleled with Faust's seduction of the prettiest and purest churchgoing girl in town, Gretchen. The tone has changed dramatically by the time Mephisto tricks Faust into losing his girl, and Gretchen finds herself carrying Faust's child through a snowy landscape, turned away from every door because of the stigma of an unwed mother. The sequence her child freezes to death--buried in a mound of snow which, in her feverish hallucination, she sees to be a cradle--is lacerating; just as she is found half-dead in the snow, and about to be arrested for killing her baby, she screams out for Faust's help: a quick dolly into her open screaming mouth, and that image is held transparent over the screen while we dash across the countryside, finally arriving at a distant cliff, where the pensive Faust is suddenly jolted by the psychic impact of his beloved's despair. And this is a film from 1926.
Jannings, so brilliant (and different) in Tartuffe, The Last Laugh, and Faust, would go on to the aforementioned Blue Angel before making the unfortunate decision to ally himself with the Nazis. (As would Thea von Harbou, screenwriter of Phantom; this would end her marriage to Fritz Lang, who wisely saw Nazism for what it was and fled to America, subsequently denouncing it through American propaganda pictures like Fury.) Murnau left for the U.S. much sooner. In 1927, a year after Faust, his career would reach its apogee with Sunrise, widely considered to be one of the greatest pictures ever made; it, too, held back on the title cards, and succeeded in fulfilling Murnau's dream of making a pure visual piece of storytelling. Talkies soon emerged, and the filmmaking art that Murnau helped refine would stumble backward, as though, in the zeal to bring sound to film, studios had forgotten the visual element. Murnau would make his last film, Tabu, in 1931, but he never truly succeeded in the American market. He died in a car accident the same year.