F. W. Murnau has already proven himself to be quite the visionary filmmaker so I went into this double feature very excited. I had a feeling I would very much enjoy these two films. I have a general idea of Faust (because anyone remotely literate has heard of Faust at some point or another, right?), but I had no background knowledge on Tartauffe. Well, the film is based on a 17th play of the same name, but screenwriter Carl Mayer cut out many of the secondary characters so that the film can focus on the triangle of action between husband and wife, Orgon and Elmire, and the eponymous Tartauffe. As the story goes, Tartauffe is a purported "holy man" that is actually an impostor manipulating Orgon. Tartauffe somehow convinces Orgon that his lavish lifestyle is sinful and he must give away his wealth, dismiss his staff, neglect his loving wife, and leave all of his worldly possessions to Tartauffe in his last will and testament (not suspicious at all). The rest of the family (which in the film is just Elmire and their remaining servant, Dorine) can see through Tartauffe's manipulation and Elmire becomes the object of Tartauffe's lecherous ways, though he initially resists in order to keep his con going. The story has a happy ending: Elmire and Dorine trick Tartauffe into revealing his true deceiving self behind closed doors (thanks to Elmire's hesitant seduction) but Orgon is watching through the keyhole and hears all. Tartauffe flees, but not before Orgon lands a few punches, and Elmire gets the love of her husband back.
The story of Elmire, Orgon, and Tartauffe is actually a-film-within-a-film; this movie uses a framing device to tell the story of Taratuffe and it's the first film I've seen from this decade to do such a thing. The framing story involves a similar story of deception; a housekeeper convinces the elderly man she cares for to leave her his fortune upon his death. The old man agrees because, for one, he refuses to put his grandson's name down because he "became an actor against my will," but also because he believes his housekeeper to be kind and loyal. However, this is dramatic irony since the audience sees clearly that the she's only nice to his face in a bid to get her name on the last will and testament. When the old man isn't looking, the housekeeper is visibly cruel and unkind. The actor grandson sees through the housekeeper and he disguises himself so he can show the housekeeper and his grandfather the movie Tartauffe. At the end of the film, he reveals himself and calls out the housekeeper, who we find out has been slowly poisoning the old man. I am reminded of Hamlet when the prince hosts a play that acts out a man murdering his brother in an attempt to reveals his uncle's treasonous murder of King Hamlet.
This framing device is a clever "life imitates art imitates life" meta message that I appreciate on several levels, and I also appreciate F. W. Murnau's penchant for happy but still somehow realistic endings. Also, and this may be a stretch, but I got a feminist vibe from both the Elmire and housekeeper character. They're foil characters, obviously, but the fact that Elmire saves her husband from the clutches of the obviously deceptive Tartauffe is pretty progressive, as is the use of a female character as an minor antagonist, which I haven't seen much of either. My millennial self is happy with both narrative choices.
Faust is based on the German legend, which is turn based on the historical Johann Georg Faust (known as John Faustus to English audiences), an alchemist who lived from the late 13th to mid 14th century. As the legend goes, Faust made a pact with the devil, selling his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The term "Faustian" is today used to describe someone who gives up their moral integrity for their ambition. The story of Dr. Faust has been adapted and reinterpreted many times in the centuries since the death of the man who inspired the legend. However, I am not privy to how exactly Faust, the alchemist, inspired such a tragic tale, but I do know that the legend has muddied the waters of historical facts regarding his life. Perhaps we'll never quite know what the real Faust was like in his lifetime.
This adaptation of Faust opens with Mephisto, the demon, making a bet with an archangel; if Mephisto can corrupt the divinity within Faust then Mephisto will have dominion over the Earth. In a bid to do just that, Mephisto curses the German town where Faust resides with a plague and the once lively town falls to ruin as it's people die one by one. Frustrated that neither knowledge nor prayer is making any difference, Faust is tricked into summoning Mephisto who then seduces Faust into signing a One Day contract with which he can obtain the power to cure the ailing people around him. This backfires, of course, when Faust is unable to cure a patient who is wielding a cross and, realizing that Faust must be in league with the devil, the town turns on him. Distraught with the state of his life, Faust seemingly gives up; he even attempts to kill himself. But Mephisto, not giving up that easily, grants Faust youth and promises him all the pleasures life has to offer, and Faust gives in.
This is an interesting framing device to place on the story since it semi-absolves Faust of moral degradation. He was mostly manipulated into making questionable decisions by Mephisto; the plague, the trickery that summoned Mephisto, the "One Day Trial" contract that backfired, and even the restored youth all served to bring Faust to his lowest point, and it's there, in the abyss of despair and regret, that Faust, now a young man, gives into temptation. That doesn't make Faust a morally inept monster, but a mere flawed human. And it's in this morally gray area of humanity that, in my opinion, great stories thrive.
I won't say anymore on the rest of the plot since this may be one of those films that one should experience for oneself, but it's one of the few films of the decade whose theme is loudly and clearly communicated. I will say that between That Last Laugh, Tartauffe, and now Faust, I am officially an F.W. Murnau fan. This film surprised me with it's ability to creep me out and Emil Jannings was once again fantastic in his role as Mephisto; when Faust summoned Mephisto, who was previously depicted as highly inhuman, he appeared to Faust as an old man. At first he just sits there, and then he slowly tips his hat to Faust. Horrified, Faust flees and Mephisto turns to look at the camera; his eyes are white dots and his wide smile is disturbing. He appears to Faust a few more times as Faust makes his way home, each time he does nothing except tip his hat, until finally Mephisto appears to Faust within his home. It is nothing short of terrifying.
Here's a fun fact: Emil Jannings was the very first actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor at the 1st Academy Awards in 1930 and, to this day, he is the only German actor to have won it. Watch his performance in Faust (or really, any other Murnau collaboration) and you'll understand why he was the right choice for that honor.
Faust was also quite impressive (for its time) with the special effects used, particularly the flying effects that Mephisto employs to get around. I read that with six months needed for shooting and costing 2 million marks, this was the most expensive and longest production by German film company UFA at the time. 2 million German marks in 1927 is the equivalent of roughly $6.8 million when adjusted for inflation. That's certainly not pocket change, and the film only made half it's budget back at the box office. According to film historians, Faust changed film shooting and special effects techniques; Murnau, innovator and pioneer that he is, used two cameras at the same time, often filming the same scene over and over again. There's a short sequence at the start of the film wherein Mephisto's contract with Faust is drawn up with fire burning the words onto the parchment. This sequence alone took an entire day to film. Perhaps six months doesn't sound like much time in movie terms, but actually, the average Hollywood film only takes about two months to shoot; post-production is what takes the longest time (anywhere from 6 months to a year, depending on the budget, length, and scale). So for a 1927 silent film to take half a year just to shoot the scenes is quite surprising. If you're still not convinced, consider this: at almost 4 hours long Gone With the Wind (1939) took less than 6 months to shoot.
Join me next time as I watch my very first, but hopefully not my last, Buster Keaton flick, The General, as well as the very first feature-length science fiction flick, Metropolis. See you then!
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