Friedrich Wilhem Plumpe (1888-1931) -- F.W. Murnau - was, without a doubt, one of Germany's - and the world, for that matter - most talented directors. In fact, he was voted as the 33rd Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly magazine. I am sure that he would have accomplished much more if his life would have not being drastically cut short by a tragic automobile accident in Santa Barbara, California, in 1931. The fantastic and extremely important "Murnau" is a fascinating and historical six-DVD box set that KINO put together with some of this filmmakers' best work, which covers the whole range of his talent and vision.
All the films included in this collection have been restored for their German release and some, as "Faust," "The Haunted Castle," and The Finances of the Grand Duke," are available for first time in the United States, in their very best possible quality, one of KINO's guaranteed trademarks.
The first film, "Faust" (1926), is, perhaps, the most confusing, due to the complexity of the plot. It's about an alchemist, who is a subject of a bet between an angel and the devil, in which a town is infected by the plague (delivered by the devil himself), and the devil convinces Faust that he would cure all the people in exchange of his soul. It stars Emil Jennings, who majestically plays Mephisto, in an unforgettable performance. If you recall, Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for his work in two US-made films, "The Last Command" (1928) and "The Way of All Flesh" (1927). In "Faust," you will see Janning's captivating power as an actor, and why Murnau used him in many of his films. Unfortunately, Jannings was a willing supporter of the Nazis, which eventually led to his subsequent ban and disappearance from cinema. The film is also loaded with special effects, which still hold their own in current times. This mesmerizing DVD also includes a new musical score, a new piano score (adapted from the 1926 original arrangement), lost screen footage of Ernst Lubitsch's abandoned 1923 production of "Faust" and "Marguerite," essay by film historian Jan Christopher Horak, and much more.
The next film, "The Haunted Castle" (1921), follows a different pattern in narrative, because it is divided in acts - five, to be precise. Most of the story takes place inside the Vogelöd Castle, during a fall hunt, which, unfortunately, was ruined by unstoppable raining days. This unexpected situation forces the guests to spend much of their time inside the castle. The disappearance of a priest brings about distrust within the guests, and it unravels an old crime that involves one of the attendees. In this film, Murnau experiments with horror and suspense, spiked with clever humor. The DVD also features a gallery of set design paintings by Robert Herlth, as well as excerpts of Rudolf Stratz' novel, which inspired the movie.
On the other hand, in "The Finances of the Grand Duke" (1924) Murnau presents a witty comedy, with a subliminal political message. It takes place on the Grand Dukedom of Abacco, an island, "perhaps in the Mediterranean,", which is ruled by the benevolent dictator Roman XXII (Harry Liedtke). Roman is not good with money, and his country is in debt, most of it to a shadowy entrepreneur named Matcowitz. Word about his financial problems goes out, and Roman finds himself very vulnerable for an overthrow, which comes in the form of four conspirators: a dangerous one, a sinister one, a hunchback, and an ambitious one. However, help is on the way by means of Olga (Mady Christians), a beautiful Russian princess. All these characters provide for a memorable comedy, which includes a lot of written dialogue, in comparison to the other films in this collection, all of which are silent. This DVD features audio commentary by film historian David Kalat.
"The Last Laugh" (1924) is a study about the human condition, which is based on Nicolai Gogol's "The Coat," where the author examines the disproportionate importance given to uniforms. The film stars Emil Jannings as an aging building concierge. He is gentle and noble, proud of his work. Because of his impressive military-looking uniform, he is widely respected, especially when he returns home everyday to his neighborhood. However, due to his advanced age, frailty, and, in some degree, bad luck, he is demoted to a job in the men's restroom. Loosing his concierge uniform demolishes him and he hides the truth to his daughter, family, and friends. It is humiliation that breaks his heart. However, he doesn't realize that there is something else in store for him. Emil Jannings once again triumphs playing the main role - it really touches you. "The Last Laugh," in addition of being a great movie, is also part of Murnau's exploration of the language of cinema. In this case, the movie has no dialogue, and it delivers in every sense. The city landscape, provided by Karl Freund's brilliant cinematography, is just awesome. The DVD also presents the documentary "The Making of the Last Laugh," and more.
Next we have "Nosferatu" (1922), a classic of horror cinema, based on the novel "Dracula," by Bram Stoker. Max Schreck plays Count Orlok, from Transylvania, who is planning to buy a house in Wisburg. For this purpose, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), a real state agent, is sent to Orlok's house in Transylvania, in order that he can complete the transaction. Never in his mind did Hutter imagine that he was going to meet a vampire. Once Orlok moves to Wisburg, chaos takes over, and Hutter's wife will play a significant role. This is perhaps Murnau's most famous and known film, which is unfortunate, because most of his other movies are equally brilliant. It was also his first success. But "Nosferatu" has justifiable survived the test of time as a landmark in the cinema of horror. This DVD is loaded with great extras, such as the documentaries "The Language of Shadows: The Early Years and Nosferatu" and "Nosferatu: An historic film meets digital," as well as excerpts from other films by Murnau
Lastly, the DVD set also includes Moliere's "Tartuffe" (1925), which begins by telling us that great is the number of hypocrites on earth and many one the forms of which they appear...! Many a time we unsuspectingly sit next to them." These sentences set the tone for the film, in which a caretaker slowly poisons an old man, in order that she can inherit his fortune. She convinces him that his son doesn't care about him. In the same vein, and continuing his examination on greed, there is also a story about a happily married man who is giving away his money to Tartuffe, a thief disguised as a highly religious man of wisdom, who happens to be a guest as his house. The wife tries by all means to convince her husband that he is being used. Emil Jannings shines again in the role of Tartuffe. The DVD also contains the documentary "The Way to Murnau," about the life and films of the legendary director.
"Murnau" is a must-have, a treasure for collectors and movie enthusiasts alike. The films included represent the work of an icon of cinema that had so much to offer and had a great understanding of its language. Murnau could easily make drama, comedy, horror, or any of these combined, always generating successful stories. In fact, some say that "Sunrise" (1927), one of the films that he made in the United States, may be the finest silent film ever. The movies that comprise this magnificent box set provide convincing evidence of the Murnau's grandeur. (Faust: Germany, 1926, B&W 106 min plus additional materials; The Haunted Castle: Germany, 1921, color tinted, 81 min; The Finances of the Grand Duke, Germany, 1924, color tinted, 77 min; The Last Laugh: Germany, 1924, B&W, 90 min plus additional materials; Nosferatu: Germany, 1922, color tinted, 94 min plus additional materials; Tartuffe: Germany, 1925, color tinted, 63 min plus additional materials)
Reviewed on December 14, 2009 by senior writer Eric Gonzalez for [...]