Silent Warnings 

Restored to DVD, German director Murnau’s films are both striking and unconventional to the modern eye

Restored to DVD, German director Murnau’s films are both striking and unconventional to the modern eye

As art ages, one era’s conventions can look downright avant-garde, while our own era’s conventions can seem old-fashioned by comparison. Perhaps that explains the huge gulf between even the most populist silent film and present-day audiences—a gap that few spectators are interested in bridging. However, the work of German director F.W. Murnau, who died in a car accident in California in 1931, retains an urgency that has kept it relatively accessible. It may have even led to his bizarre afterlife as a fictional character. Recently, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire resurrected Murnau for a campy reimagination of the shoot of his horror classic Nosferatu, in which the film’s vampire turned out to be the real thing. While Shadow of the Vampire has plenty of merit as a dark comedy about the privileges of celebrity and as a showcase for Willem Dafoe’s scenery-chewing, historical accuracy isn’t exactly high on its list of priorities. The release of Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Faust on DVD affords a welcome opportunity to see the work that led to such a legend.

Within the first few minutes of The Last Laugh (1924), Murnau sets up a complex geometrical structure of horizontal, diagonal, and vertical planes, with motion occurring amidst them as rain pours and a door revolves. The man behind the door is the Porter (Emil Jannings): an elderly man devoted to his work and, even more so, to his uniform. He’s crushed to discover that he’s being sentenced to a semi-retirement as a men’s room attendant.

The Last Laugh is an experimental film: With one exception, it contains no intertitles. Murnau relied entirely on his images to convey the story, and his bet worked. The plot is still perfectly comprehensible. The sole intertitle comes as quite a shock, although I can’t reveal its exact meaning without giving away the ending. Suffice it to say that very few contemporary directors—Lars von Trier is the only one who comes to mind—would have the guts to play with viewers’ expectations so blatantly and bluntly.

Sympathizing with the Porter requires taking the film’s premise in psychological, rather than literal, terms. One has to recognize that the loss of his uniform raises all kinds of anxieties—about downward mobility, aging, and virility—that are far out of proportion to the event’s actual significance. In “objective” terms, showing men to their cars is no more noble or empowering than standing by the sink and offering them towels or polishing their boots.

The strength of The Last Laugh is such that objectivity doesn’t matter much. It succeeds completely at envisioning a cityscape from the perspective of a man in the throes of severe depression. Murnau’s camerawork is unabashedly subjective, using funhouse-mirror effects to capture the threatening atmosphere that the Porter perceives. Yet it also maintains its distance. More often than not, Murnau keeps his camera away from the characters: The scene in which the Porter reads his letter of dismissal is held in long shot for an agonizing amount of time. Without a certain degree of coldness (which doesn’t equal lack of empathy), the film would probably be unbearably melodramatic. It requires several major leaps of faith—taking the Porter’s self-pity as seriously as he does, recognizing that the ending could combine sincerity and sarcasm—but Murnau’s visual brilliance makes the effort worthwhile.

The source material of Faust (1926), adapted from Goethe’s play by screenwriter Hans Kyser, may be even better known than that of Nosferatu, having recently inspired everything from an arcane film by Czech director Jan Svankmajer to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s music video “Murder Was the Case.” Yet it’s relatively obscure compared to its predecessor; unfortunately, the obscurity is largely warranted. Like The Last Laugh, it kicks off with a breathtaking opening, depicting an argument between an angel and the devil, Mephisto (Jannings). Here, the director uses light metaphorically, punctuating the frame with extremes of brightness and darkness. In the scenes that follow, set in a town ravaged by plague, darkness dominates, with only a few strands of overhead light penetrating the image.

Driven to despair, Faust (Gosta Ekman) makes a deal with the devil to save his town, where half the inhabitants have died in just a few days. (Unlike many versions of this story, his motives are noble, at least initially.) His pact in blood will supposedly only bind him for a day. His original goal fails, as the townspeople quickly reject him, but he suddenly sees more worth in his contract with Mephisto when he realizes that he can use his newly recovered youth to court the beautiful Gretchen (Camilla Horn).

Faust is a film of great set pieces—the opening, Gretchen’s agonizing abandonment amidst winter snowdrifts, a flight taken by Faust and Mephisto—but not a great film. Murnau emphasizes imagery over storytelling, leading to some jarring tonal shifts. The middle section, devoted to Faust’s courtship of Gretchen, is almost lighthearted, injecting a comic element that seems wildly inappropriate here, although it might work in a different context. At best, the film conjures up a moody mysticism, redolent as much of the story’s folk roots as of Goethe. At times, the spell breaks, but it holds up often enough to make Faust a memorable experience.

Although Faust suffers from signs of rot for about 15 seconds, both discs look quite good, apart from a few minor speckles. Kino has appended recent scores composed and conducted by Timothy Brock. The company has also thoughtfully packaged both DVDs, accompanying Faust with a three-page essay by historian Jan Christopher Hovak and The Last Laugh with a replica of the original index card. And both discs include bonuses as well: galleries of production stills and an alternate version of a key scene from The Last Laugh, taken from a German print.

In the wake of Hitler’s rise, both The Last Laugh and Faust’s tales of anxiety over loss of power and desperate bargaining to regain it take on a sinister connotation that probably wouldn’t have occurred to many spectators at the time they were made. But the films can’t be reduced to simple historical metaphors; their mystery and vitality remain.

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