Monday, March 22, 2004


The great Murnau-thon is over, and I am having a devil of a time trying to figure out what to say about this guy. It's hard for me to pinpoint too much in the way of thematic consistency, and his photography doesn't particularly inspire too much in the way of formulaic explanation, but here we go anyway.

I've now seen Faust, The Last Laugh, Nosferatu, Sunrise, Tabu. The last two are American films, the others are German. Most of the stories are describe male/female relationships, and the German films are better than the American ones, and yes I include Sunrise, one of the Big Deal films of all time, in that sweeping statement. There is a fair amount of experimentation with presenting unreal tableaux, of creating inventive shots, but this does not always correspond with the overall quality of the film. Let's talk details.

Faust - the most visually inventive of the bunch, with some memorable scenes of Satan, representing the plague, hovering over a city. It's certainly the most expressionist of the bunch, in that sets are constructed in an angular, unreal fashion intended more to convey a sense of emotion than of realism. The story's pretty much the Faust tale we all know and love. This version focuses on the love story aspect of things. Definitely entertaining, and the freaky shots of supernatural shit are lots and lots of fun.

The Last Laugh - the beginnings of sentimentalism. It's the tale of an old hotel greeter who loses his job, being demoted from that station to a bathroom attendant. He loses his uniform and the prestige of being a garrulous frontman for the hotel. This one's definitely my favorite. The story is focused quite clearly on this one fellow, and the shame that he feels in having lost this job. He even missed his daughter's wedding in order to be at work. When he comes back, having lost the job, he gets fucking plastered and Murnau unleashes the only really strong set of wacky shots in the film as it presents a montage of celebration from the drunk's point of view. Overall, though, it's more realistic than Faust, with some fetching shots of German skylines. Anyway, the attendant, after getting drunk, goes back to work, is thoroughly humiliated in his new station in life, and then there's a turnaround (it is called The Last Laugh, after all) in his fortunes that's so unlikely that a title card pops up to tell the audience that this reversal is far less likely than misery and death. I like that. It tells you that what follows is unrealistic, so you can just sort of relish in it as a "what if" kind of fantasy. Great performance by Important German Silent Actor as the hotel guy. All around solid.

Nosferatu - oooo! Scary! Well, the shots are not as wackily Expressionist as they were back in Faust, it's all pretty realistic. There are some time lapse shots that represent doors opening on their own, and some really scary shots of shadows creeping over people. And, the Nosferatu guy is really freaky looking. Really. The setting for the story is the Jonathan Harker character (renamed Hutter) and his weird sexless marriage to his freaky wife. This weird, freaky wife (he picks her flowers, she asks him why he killed the daisies. Bizarre) somehow manages to kill off Nosferatu by making him...oh, whatever. It isn't particularly clear. There's also a Van Helsing character who stands in contrast to the Hutter guy because of, well, stuff. Mostly the film's entertaining in its depiction of the Big Bad Nosferatu's house, his bizarre carriage, his whacking of a ship's crew, and the awfulness of his arrival in Lond...I mean, Wisburg in Germany.

The story of that, by the way, is that Murnau set out to do a straight up adaptation of Dracula, then had to file off the serial numbers, so to speak, because of a dispute with the widow. So Dracula is Count Orlok or Nosferatu, Harker is Hutter, England's Germany and all that. They're still a bunch of fucking peasants who got fucked by the black plague (as they did in Faust), so there's not much lost in the translation.

One nice change here is that the Renfield character is a real estate agent who sends Hutter off to meet with the Count. It's an adaptation that Werner Herzog kept in his kinda-remake with Klaus Kinski as a very subdued sex pervert of a Nosferatu. That one also had the fucking awesome Popol Vuh song, Brothers of Darkness, Sons of Light on the soundtrack. That song rocks, and you should really download it somewhere. It's kinda confusing, mind you, the soundtrack to Herzog's Nosferatu, because there's a soundtrack album with music composed for but not actually in the film. Just do a search for "Popol Vuh Brothers Darkness" and you'll find it. It's 17 minutes long, but worth it. Prime piece of freaked out krautprogvolksmuzik. If you're of the "I like albums, not individual tracks" persuasion, it also appears on the compilation "Tantric Songs." Yes, I know, terrible title, but the music's good. And don't worry about it being a compilation. The state of official relases of Popol Vuh's music is such a fucking nightmare that all you need to know is that that is one solid piece of music. If you're into that sort of thing.

The music on the Image DVD release of Nosferatu, that is the Murnau one, fucking blows. I assume that Kino's DVD is perfectly acceptable film quality/cut wise, so I have to recommend that one if you can find it. It has to have a better soundtrack. Image has a 5.1 score composed by "The Silent Orchestra," a group which sadly fails to live up to its name. It also has a 2.0 organ score which, while better than Silent's shit, still blows. Surely Kino's got something better than these two.

All in all, creepy fun. Less outrageously showy than Faust, but still really ooky.

That's the last of the German flicks. Then Murnau went American. Woot.

Sunrise - much beloved film in film history. A true Big Deal. Which happens To Blow. Ok, it's clearly quite accomplished technically. It's largely shot on sets, and there are lots of interestingly tossed together shots, some freaky compositing effects, early "green screen" type stuff. There's a mixture of models are projection footage and action that I don't understand but looks quite nice. The story, though, is fucking awful. It starts out with a title card which tells us that the story we're about to see seems to be about one man and his wife, but it's really about all men and all women. Bad fucking move, that title card. Then it goes into this ridiculous fucking story.

So there's this farmer and he has a freakishly anime-esque blonde wife. He starts nailing a brunette city chick on the side, because the city is filled with Evil Temptations that lure our Rural Innocents away from such wholesome activities as cockfighting and goatfucking. Whatever. So the adulterous pair hatch a plot to kill the blonde wife (whose shown taking iligent care of their strapping Aryan baby) by drowning her. The husband takes the wife out in a boat to the middle of the lake. He starts moving menacingly towards her, she freaks out, he pussies out and doesn't kill her.

Then they go on a wacky fun-loving city adventure. Fo ril.

OK, so there's a little bit of her being scared of him because, you know, he tried to shuffle off her mortal coil a little earlier in the day, but they have a good cry about it and then proceed to have a gay ol' time. This is the major problem with the film. He tries to kill her, then they party. And because it's a silent film, you're tempted to sass off to the screen. "Oh, what a lovely time we're having, you should try to fill my lungs with seawater more often!"

Anyway, gaiety is gayed, and then they go home on the boat, where they run into a storm where (you guessed it. Look, I don't care how fucking early this was in cinema, it was a shitty, obvious idea anyway.) the wife goes overboard and is lost. And he thinks she's dead. And he rebukes the city girl brunette who thinks he's completed the plan. And he's so happy when it turns out she's not dead. And they raise their bouncing, blonde baby, looking ever forward to a future without Jews.

Sunrise sucks, in short. It's got a lot of wacky shots, though, so people are going to constantly cite it as important. In terms of presenting actual, believable, relatable human experience, though, it ain't got nothing on The Last Laugh.

Then Murnau did Tabu, which is a fucking simplistic story about these two forbidden lovers in Bora Bora. Murnau shot the film with some participation from the Nanook of the North guy. Gone are the wacky shots, there are mostly just nice, very natural shots of natives frolicking. All on location.

There is one process shot of a shark. I'm not impressed, though. I've seen Fulci's Zombi, in which a zombie dude - a real actor in zombie makeup - wrassles with a real live non-mechanical shark underwater. Really, there is no other shark shot in movie history worth thinking about.

Anyway, the technical mojo is really not there in an ostentatious way. I mean, we're a long way by now from the wacky expressionist Faust. It's mostly national geographic now. It has its moments. The chick's pretty cool, and the evil (well, ultraconservative) tribal chief is pretty scary. There's also a heartbreaking shot of a rope being cut. All in all, though, far too much Nothing going on the the 85 minutes for it to dethrone The Last Laugh.

Which is a totally solid piece of filmmaking. Lovely composition, a character you can actually understand, a subtle and nuanced presentation of that character, as if each shot were there only as an extension of his character. A story that's sad and redeeming and melancholy and all in all makes you feel like a human being and makes you feel that other human beings are worthwhile in their being of human beings. Being. Totally enjoyable and worthwhile. It's going to be a bitch to find, so just rent Nosferatu instead, it's pretty good, too, and has some cool color tinting effects. And if you can figure out why exactly Nosferatu dies, let me know.

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