Saturday, November 28, 2020

Herr Tartüff

Molière's comedy Tartuffe has produced numerous adaptations, but perhaps few as original as F.W. Murnau's silent film Herr Tartüff.

Murnau is one of those directors who has always fascinated me. After serving in the German army during the First World War, he made the terrifying horror film Nosferatu, based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. He later filmed the innovative comedy The Last Laugh as well as his re-imagining of Tartuffe, before adapting for film what is probably an even more famous play, Goethe's Faust.

Herr Tartüff really is a reimagining, as it departs significantly from Molière's play. The film uses a framing device in which an old man is being slowly poisoned by his housekeeper. The old man's grandson comes for a visit, but gets thrown out for being a good-for-nothing actor. Being an actor, however, he is able to disguise himself and visit the house with a traveling cinema. He then shows a film based on Tartuffe and exposes the housekeeper's hypocrisy.

Because the silent film can't use Molière's witty dialogue, it has to find other ways to tell the story. I was mainly watching to see the scene in Act IV of the play where Orgon hides under a table while the hypocrite Tartuffe tries to seduce his wife. In the film, Orgon hides behind a curtain, and just when the hypocrite is about to make his move, he sees the husband's face in a reflection. Immediately, he resumes his pious act, and Orgon becomes more convinced of his friend's saintliness than ever before.

That just stretches the action out longer, though, as the film has another scene that takes place that night, where Orgon's wife Elmire goes even further with Herr Tartüff, this time in a room that contains a bed! The faithful maid Dorine forces Orgon to watch through a keyhole, though, and the impostor is unmasked.

Lil Dagover, who played the heroine in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, takes on the part of Elmire, and is stunning in the role. If you're interested, you can watch the whole film here.