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The film begins with the story of a rich man being given a slow premature death by his money-grubbing housekeeper. The elderly man has shunned his actor grandson, who visits him and, after discovering the housekeepers use of poison, is sent away. He returns disguised as a travelling cinema worker, who, upon getting into his grandfather's house, proceeds to show them the story of Herr Tartuff. Rich landowner Herr Orgon (Werner Krauss) brings his new friend and religious fanatic Tartuffe (Emil Jannings) home, much to the dismay of Orgon's wife Frau Elmire (Lil Dagover). After she spurns Tartuffe's sexual advances, she sets out to prove to Orgon that Tartuffe is an imposter who is seeking to inherit Orgon's vast estate.
Why director F.W. Murnau decided to use the film-within-a-film device in his adaptation of Moliere's famous play, I'm not sure. Maybe it was to put his own new spin on what is now a well-known story and moral tale, or perhaps it is just to bring it up to date. Either way, it's an effective device, and allows Murnau to advertise his unbelievably advanced film-making techniques and ideas. His better known classics such as Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) showed his ability for expressionism and breakthrough techniques, but Tartuffe displays his eye for the science of cinema. Every frame, every camera movement, and every cut is sheer beauty. And everything is helped by one of the giants of silent cinema, Emil Jannings.
Tartuffe is an absolute monster, and it needed a true monster to play him. Jannings is colossal - his hulking frame making him look like a kind of evil spectre, capable of anything (what a shame that Jannings would later commit career suicide by becoming Goebbels pet propaganda tool). The film takes some surprising risks (for its time) as well. During the opening scenes, before we are introduced to Tartuffe, we see the young grandson being booted out of the house. Then something amazing happens - he walks up to the camera and looks at us, the audience, smiling. He assures us that the matter is not finished, and that he will be back to avenge his grandfather. This was back in a time where directors felt they had to have the characters looking a certain way went conversing, and that camera shots had to be at a certain level, for fear the audience simply wouldn't understand what was happening. Directors were simply terrified to try new techniques, but not Murnau.
There is also a shocking scene involving the first exchanges between Tartuffe and Elmire. She is in the midst of demanding him to leave, when the camera droops down from her face, and lingers on her cleavage, which is slightly visible due to the way she is looking down upon Tartuffe. All is seen from Tartuffe's point of view, and this happens a number of times. Surprisingly saucy given it's age. Murnau is simply a genius, and you can watch almost any of his films to realise this. Tartuffe is not his best, and even if it seems to be breathlessly sprinting for the end in the final ten minutes, it is still a brilliant film.
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