Retrospective explores psychic labyrinth of German expressionist film master Murnau
From a stiffly cloaked vampire to haunted castles to an awe-inspiring scene of Faust's aerial journey on Mephisto's cloak, the stylised and stunning imagery created by the German expressionist film master F.W. Murnau remains striking even after eight decades. His work not only helped to define the German silent film but also influenced many directors who came after him.
Presented by the Film Programmes Office of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and curated by Mr Law Wai-ming, the "Repertory Cinema 2012 - Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau" series, which has recently screened the visionary works of the German director Fritz Lang, will showcase classics by Murnau. A retrospective of all 12 of his surviving films, most of them in restored versions, will be shown at the Cinema of the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) and the Lecture Hall of the Hong Kong Science Museum from December 22 to January 27 for film buffs and young audiences to enjoy his film art and fantastic visuals.
The titles to be shown are his earliest surviving film, "Journey into the Night" (1920); the illusive "The Haunted Castle" (1921); his most well-known film, "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror" (1922); his classic work of light and shadow, "The Burning Soil" (1922); the realist film "Phantom" (1922); the light comedy "The Finances of the Grand Duke" (1924); the classic silent "The Last Laugh" (1924); "Tartuffe" (1926), an adaptation of Molière's comedy; "Faust" (1926), which exploited all sorts of experimentation with lighting and movements; "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans" (1927), which won three Oscars, and its sister production "City Girl" (1930); and his last film, "Tabu: A Story of the South Seas" (1931), which won Best Cinematography at the fourth Oscars.
A master of light and shadow, the influential German expressionist director F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) was a pioneer in film history in many ways. His films not only exploited new filming techniques, but also were ambitious in terms of their use of location sets. Whether they involved vampires, comedy or romance, his films penetrated deeply into the psychic world of their characters with brave experimentation in light movements and the use of extremely expressive forms and architectural compositions. He created 21 films in his short lifetime, yet they marked an important era in film history.
Deeply influenced by literature, theatre and fine arts, Murnau developed a unique film language with stylistic framing and innovative camerawork, and this made him one of the earliest directors to find international fame. His cinematographic techniques have been studied again and again. The majority of his early films were chamber dramas adapted from literary works. Successfully combining expressionist images and a horror story, his "Nosferatu" had a great influence on the horror movies of later ages.
"Journey into the Night" was Murnau's sixth work and is his earliest surviving film. It features a love tangle involving a famed doctor who leaves his wife behind for a dancing girl. When they move to the countryside, they encounter a blind painter and the doctor cures his blindness. The dancing girl and the painter fall in love until the painter loses his sight again. Using strong contrasts in darkness and light, Murnau played on the themes of fear and desire among lovers.
The prototype for all vampire stories on the screen, "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror" is Murnau's most well-known silent film and has been remade many times. It remains a landmark in classic cinema, pioneering in the usage of lighting, film composition, moving shadows, unprecedented costumes and set design. A real estate agent goes to faraway Eastern Europe to sign a sales agreement with a vampire, who then moves to Germany where he drinks human blood and spreads the plague. Murnau's cinematic linkage of vampires with plague, rats, nightmares and death is unique in style and the distorted light and shadow of the expressionist style enhance the horrifying atmosphere.
Released in the same year as "Nosferatu", "Phantom" was actually a realist film. A clerk is caught in a deep abyss of fantasies after being hit by a beautiful woman driving a carriage. With nimble cinematography and contrasting interior decorations, the film shows a surreal, dreamlike quality.
Featuring a castle enveloped by a cloud of mysteries, "The Haunted Castle" is crowded with a group of aristocrats. Pouring rain forces them to stay with a non-invited count who is avoided by other guests since he is reputed to have shot his own brother during a hunt. The appearance of a baroness complicates the situation. The misty landscapes contrast beautifully with the castle's indoor architecture, giving hints to the characters' emotional turmoil.
Building up a no man's land of ice and snow with the distorted spaces of a mansion, "The Burning Soil" plays with expressionist light and shadow in ways that had never been so nihilistic. The film tells a modern "vampire" story involving struggles over a plot of petroleum-rich land. A farmer's son woos an earl's daughter for her wealth, then changes his target to her stepmother in hopes of inheriting the valuable land.
Murnau took expressionism to Hollywood when he made his first US film, "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans", which won the Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Cinematography awards at the first Oscars. The film resembles the best of his German work, with the same stylish sets, unusual compositions, lyrical atmosphere and fluid camerawork. It features a young farmer who falls for a city woman and tries to kill his wife. But the man's conscience overcomes him and he and his wife start a journey of self-discovery. "City Girl" is a sister production of "Sunrise" and tells of the challenges faced by lovers in the rural life instead of city life. A young farmer marries a city waitress in a flash, but when they return to his family farm on the prairie the city girl is not accepted by her father-in-law. The arrival of some harvesters also adds challenges to the young couple's relationship.
"Faust" is a supreme example of German studio craftsmanship. Murnau experimented boldly with light, movement and forms in retelling the classic German folk tale with the entire film shot in studios. Special effects are used abundantly; the visually stunning scene in which a demon flies through the air with a rejuvenated Faust and looks down at the common people is one of the film's most extraordinary sequences and set a standard for special effects for many years to come.
The classic silent film "The Last Laugh", a tragic tale of a hotel doorman who is demoted to washroom attendant because of his old age, was another daring experimental work by Murnau. Using innovative camera movements, Murnau's film manifests the degradation and frustration of the doorman. The camera flows along rails, takes close-up shots of faces and shots from above, and dances with a revolving door. The narration was so smooth that intertitles were almost unnecessary, turning the film medium into an independent art form. In contrast to the almost wordless "The Last Laugh", "Tartuffe" has 173 intertitle cards. Adapted from Molière's renowned comedy, Murnau's film introduced a framing device that made the story become a film within a film. "Faust", "The Last Laugh" and "Tartuffe" all feature brilliant performances by Emil Jannings, the Oscars' first Best Actor winner.
"The Finances of the Grand Duke" is Murnau's most light-hearted work. A Grand Duchy of the Mediterranean is in dire financial straits. Marriage with the Grand Duchess of Russia would offer a solution, but a crucial letter of hers about the engagement has been stolen. Moreover, a bunch of revolutionaries have other plans for the Grand Duchess. Murnau's last film, "Tabu: A Story of the South Seas", is the story of a Polynesian girl who tries to escape with her lover to avoid being sacrificed to the gods. The film was shot entirely in Tahiti and depicts the beauty of the island paradise with stunning visuals. Murnau died in a car accident just a few days before its premiere.
All films will be presented with either music or live music accompaniment. "Tartuffe", "Sunrise", "City Girl" and "Tabu" have English intertitles while "The Last Laugh" has German intertitles. Other films have German intertitles and English subtitles.
Tickets priced at $55 are now available at URBTIX outlets. Half-price concessionary tickets are available for senior citizens aged 60 and above, people with disabilities and their minders, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. Credit card telephone booking can be made on 2111 5999 or on the Internet at www.urbtix.hk .
Detailed programme information can be found in the programme leaflets distributed at all performing venues of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. For enquiries, please call 2734 2900, or browse www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/CulturalService/filmprog/english/2012rc/2012rc_index.html .
Ends/Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Issued at HKT 18:50
A film still from "Journey into the Night" (1920).
A film still from "The Haunted Castle" (1921).
A film still from "The Burning Soil" (1922).
A film still from "Phantom" (1922).
A film still from "The Finances of the Grand Duke" (1924).
A film still from "The Last Laugh" (1924).
A film still from "Tartuffe" (1926).
A film still from "City Girl" (1930).