DVD has been as good to F.W. Murnau as any silent legend has a right to expect. Milestone Films released a gorgeous edition of his final film, Tabu, back in the early days of DVD. Flicker Alley released the 1922 rarity Phantom (restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation) a few years ago. Fox collected his American features — Sunrise (one of the unequivocal masterpieces of world cinema) and City Girl, along with a documentary tribute to his lost drama Four Devils — in the magnificent box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox. And Kino, which released the American versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust on DVD, has been faithfully upgrading and adding to the library with stateside releases of restorations helmed by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Milestone’s Tabu, which was on the earlier set, is not here, but it is available separately from Milestone. Confusing? Yes, it can be. If you’ve been picking up the restored upgrades all along, you’ll probably want to skip the box and just pick up the three DVD debuts separately. If you don’t have any of the restored versions, however, the box set is an essential instant collection for the Murnau fan or the silent movie obsessive.
Nosferatu (1922) is, of course, the ur-vampire film. It was also an unauthorized adaptation Bram Stoker’s novel (or a shameless rip off, if you prefer) and was for years tied up by the Stoker estate. Murnau reimagines his vampire as a feral ghoul: bald, fanged, clawed, a bat-like creature whose bloodlust battles his sexual lust for the virginal Ellen. Count Orlock (played by the spindly, skull-headed Max Schreck) is a veritable force of evil, carrying disease and destruction with him, and Murnau shoots him as an eerie creature of the night, rising like a corpse from his coffin when the sun goes down and skulking in shadow. This is the German version restored by the Murnau Institute in 2007 and features a reconstruction of Hans Erdmann’s original 1922 score and the accompanying 52-minute German TV documentary The Language of Shadows: The Early Years and Nosferatu by Luciano Berriatua.
The Last Laugh (1924) stars Emil Jannings as an aging hotel doorman who transforms overnight from the whiskered cherub of a cheery old master of the door to a numb, stumbling old man when he’s demoted to bathroom attendant. Murnau combines kammerspiel realism and German expressionism for a mix of social melodrama and psychological tragedy. The idea of identity and social respect through uniform as presented in the film seems extreme from an American perspective but Murnau brings the power of that idea to the screen in the way Jannings steals his old uniform to keep up appearances and scurries through the shadows to keep his shame a secret. Told with a minimum of intertitles and camerawork of unprecedented mobility, was hailed as a masterpiece of storytelling sophistication and influenced filmmaking all over the world. This 2003 restoration features a new recording of Guiseppe Becce’s dramatic and lively original 1924 orchestral score and the 40-minute documentary The Making of The Last Laugh by Luciano Berriatua.
Murnau’s adaptation of Moliere’s classic satire Tartuffe (1926) frames the play as a film within a film, shown by a cheery young man to his grandfather, who is being deceived by an obsequious housekeeper. Jannings is the famous hypocrite in the film, whose false piety lands him in the lap of luxury, where he attempts to seduce the young wife (Lil Dagover) of his devoted pupil and sponsor (Werner Krauss). This is the same version previously released in the 2003 box set and separately on disc, with a piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia and Alexander Bahr’s 35-minute documentary The Way to Murnau.
While those discs have been available in one form or another, the following productions are new to DVD.
The Haunted Castle (1921) is the earliest Murnau film now available on DVD (it has been on DVD in public domain versions previously, but not in any form resembling acceptable quality). Despite the title, it is not a horror film or a ghost story. Set in a magnificent country manor in the modern era (circa 1921), it’s a psychological drama and murder mystery that plays like a piece of drawing room theater (though, in fact, its origins are a novel by Rudolf Stratz). The high society types are stuck in the manor when their hunting party is rained out and the tensions build when the uninvited Count Oetsch — an ominous, arrogant figure that everyone assumes murdered his brother for the inheritance — refuses to leave, even when his brother’s widow arrives. When a visiting priest disappears, suspicion falls on the Count. It’s not all that compelling a mystery and Murnau’s visual approach is simple, handsome and mildly expressionistic with a stately acting style that evokes the theatrical tradition rather than the lively cinematic style he would perfect over the next decade. But he also exhibits great skill in effectively setting up the complicated relationships and filling in the necessary backstory with limber crosscutting between various conversations, and he creates great dramatic tension and an ominous mood in the stillness of his compositions and the lugubrious movement of his actors. The disc features a tinted restoration from 2002 with a terrific new piano score by Neil Brandt, a gallery of set design paintings and excerpts from the original novel.
Things are much livelier in The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924), a lighthearted espionage thriller set in an island nation with charming “benevolent dictator” Don Roman XX, Grand Duke of Abacco about to have his entire country repossessed by a banker calling his loan due. What he wants with an island country is a little vague (a vacation home perhaps?) but he’d rather have the kingdom than the cash. Harry Liedtke is in fact a charming Grand Duke, if a bit cavalier for the leader of a bankrupt country, but that turns out to be catnip to a Russian Princess (Mady Christians) who announces her intentions to marry our playboy leader (and pay off his debts) by dropping leaflets from her biplane. Meanwhile, as the Grand Duke sails off to find his Princess, a scheming industrialist finances a scurvy band of sinister revolutionaries (one of them played by Max Schreck, unrecognizable behind his shaggy beard) to overthrow the monarchy in exchange for (get this) the sulfur concession. And in the midst of all this is a freelance cat burglar (Alfred Abel) who plays cupid for the lovers. It’s silly fluff but a charming lark of a romantic espionage adventure and Murnau is quite nimble at juggling the tangled plots and colliding characters. It’s surely the lightest (both visually and thematically) film in Murnau’s canon and it’s scripted by Thea von Harbou (in some ways it plays like a dry run for Spies, only much more lightweight and frothy). It’s a crisp-looking master with a bright score by Ekkehard Wolk and commentary by film historian David Kalat.
The prize release of the set is the new edition of Faust, Murnau’s final German production and one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gosta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Seigfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil. Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.
Yet it’s the most breathtakingly beautiful of Murnau’s German films, a tragedy drawn in epic images like paintings in light and shadow on a scale that spans the world. The imagery of Mephisto and the Archangel is operatic and grandiose, yet delicately textured and intricately lit. Lucifer takes Faust on a magic carpet ride around the world, looking down on jagged mountainscapes and fairy-tale kingdoms of opulence and decadence in a spectacle of expressionistically exaggerated miniatures and trick photography. An innocent staked to a pyre to burn for her sins becomes a scene of transcendence, at once harrowing and spiritual. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Gretchen, abandoned by her lover and rejected by the pious townspeople for her sins, crawls pathetically through the snow while clutching her infant, gripped in a hallucination of sanctuary in the storm with tragic consequences. The townsfolk may not be big on charity, but they are very quick to capture and punish the wicked. The Devil couldn’t have orchestrated her torture better… and in fact, the Devil did.
The film ostensibly takes the position of man’s essential goodness in the face of temptation in the debate between the Archangel and Mephisto, but as the drama plays out, Murnau seems to favor the Devil’s position. When the death and doom of the plague first descends on Faust’s village, the citizens slip into a bacchanal and turns their little town into a Sodom. The so-called Christians pass judgment on Faust and Gretchen with such intolerance and lack of compassion that they close their doors and their charity on the victimized Gretchen as she suffers and starves with a dying infant. How easy it is for Mephisto to tap into the greed and lust of man, Murnau seems to be saying, to dig beneath pious poses of religious morality and reveal a vicious vindictiveness. A final act of sacrifice may save the souls of our tortured sinners (and what a stunning scene it is), but it seems to me that Faust lost his wager only because they never took into account the actions of the rest of humanity, only this one seduced soul.
Murnau shot separate negatives for different territories: seven distinct versions are known to exist, each composed of different takes (some barely noticeable, others marked by different framing and editing choices, still others put together with outtakes and otherwise discarded takes). According to historian Luciano Berriatua, who also supervised this restoration, this was a rare instance where the American cut was actually Murnau’s definitive version. Murnau saw his future in Hollywood (where he would make his next film, Sunrise) and, after editing his German version, took the negatives to the U.S. to personally prepare the American version of the film. That German cut was re-edited in his absence and subsequently lost. Kino previously released a version from the Ufa vaults that was prepared in 1930 from the Danish masters. This newly remastered version is a reconstruction of his original German cut using the materials from the American version (with supplementary footage from other negatives and surviving prints where necessary) and the intertitle cards that Murnau had originally prepared for the German version (but were subsequently discarded by producer Hand Neumann). The hand-painted cards feature text over an abstract background of bold black strokes on a white background that suggests a stormy struggle between the forces of dark and light.
The quality is astounding, a beautiful print with rich tones and clear images and the finest the film has ever looked (at least in the past seventy years or so). The new restoration also features two scores — a compilation score of “historic photoplay music” by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (recorded in 5.1 Stereo Surround) and a piano score adapted from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement., the 53-minute documentary The Language of Shadows: Faust by Luciano Berriatua (which compares many of the different versions and reveals many of the outtakes used in alternate negatives), lost screen test footage of Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production “Marguerite and Faust” and galleries of set designs and stills.
The film is also available separately in the two-disc Faust — Restored Deluxe Edition with the previously released 1930 Ufa version of the film, produced for DVD by David Shepard and featuring a moody orchestral score by Timothy Brock performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra
Dave Kehr writes about the set in the New York Times here.