Deviating from French cinema for the first time in a few weeks, Not In The English Language returns with a film technically not in any language, with F. W. Murnau’s Tartuffe.

In the year between his well known classics Der Letzte Mann (1924) and Faust(1926), Friedrick Wilhelm Murnau produced Tartuffe. Historically deemed a minor piece in Murnau’s body of work, I find it hard to empathise with those who deem this to be an unfair assessment. While the film is not particularly terrible it lacks the magic that empowers the likes of Sunrise or Faust.

Loosely based upon the play Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur, that fell from the pen of Moliere, Murnau frames Moliere’s tome with a separate, but rather familiar set up. The framed section of the film works a charm, in which the tale of a young actor that returns to his grandfather’s home is told. The young actor finds that he has been pushed out of his grandfather’s will only to be replaced by his evil housekeeper. It’s fairly basic material, but is told with an affable charm, and is visually stunning to boot. In order to bring his grandfather to his senses, our hero decides to stage a picture show, in disguise. The film he shows is Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur¬†in the hope that his grandfather will see how the tale on screen echoes his own situation in life.

The play-within-a-play structure, or film-within-a-film if you will, draws obvious comparisons with Hamlet, and the way in which the same device is used. The major disappointment with the use of the device in Tartuffe is that the story that bookends the Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur section is far more interesting than the play within, and this is an issue that the film never really gets over. It’s not a terrible experience by any means, but I can’t help but think that a completely contemporary update to Moliere’s tale, in the manner in which Akira Kurosawa adapted Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, would have worked much better. I do absolutely adore the way in which Moliere’s incredibly cynical tale is drawn next to Murnau’s work, which is traditionally a very romantic approach to filmmaking.

As mentioned above, the opening section of the film is divine, and uses a lot of the techniques the Murnau is renown for. The scenes involving the grandson returning home felt very American, and although it is no doubt an incredibly uncouth comparison for me to make, his over the top and sprightly entrance reminded of Buster Keaton. The characters address to camera at the end of the scene reinforces this playful lament, with the focus on facial features, and the breaking of the fourth wall setting a cohesive and appealing premise.

Prior to this, the scene involving the banishment of the grandson had some incredibly complex multi-angle editing, with the action shot from practically 360 degrees around the protagonist. Presumably it was intended that the shooting style of the play-within-the-play would be distinctively different, and while I don’t consider this to be a huge success, the theatrically toned nature of the segment is effective (which is saying something considering the nature of silent film!). And while the camera movement is impressive for the age of the film, it does lack something when put into the context of Murnau’s ouevre, the scene involving the discovery of Tartuffe’s true intention being a key example.

Character-wise Tartuffe is full of the usual quirks and depth afforded by Murnau. The title character himself is a monstrous entity, with his overbearing frame overshadowed by the tiny bible held close to his face. Emil Jannings, the actor behind the performance was a huge star of the silver screen at the time, and as such a large portion of the film is dedicated to his turn. Charles Laughton is pre-shadowed in this booming performance.

In summation, while not the best example of Murnau’s work, Tartuffe remains an effective supporting piece, ideal for those intending to explore his oeuvre further.

Adam Batty is the editor of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second and can also be found on Twitter.