I cineasti celebri: F. W. Murnau

(questa non è una commemorazione)

Murnau? Ah, il grande direttore di Aurora…
No: Murnau, il grande direttore di Ultima risata, Tartufo, Faust.
Murnau tedesco: e non quello riveduto e corretto.

Forse egli chiude, gloriosamente, il ciclo degli scopritori dell’estetica cinematografica. Quasi tutti i valori formali sono stati intuiti e messi in luce, nonostante che in lui siano al servizio di una sostanza e di una mentalità spettacolistica (eccessivo amore per l’elemento scenografico; vedi analogie e precedenti dei régisseurs teatrali tedeschi) e pittorica (interesse espressivo rivolto particolarmente ad effetti, a toni di luce e di tinte, al « quadro », insomma).

Dopo le crisi e le delusioni delle prime esperienze di Hollywood, Murnau si preoccupa maggiormente dei valori sostanziali e tenta di avvicinarsi alla vita, per quanto gli è consentito dai produttori, come dimostra l’esperimento di Nostro pane quotidiano (il film non è piaciuto agli americani ma non per i suoi lati difettosi: per gli altri).

Il plein air e il documentario cominciano a interessarlo vivamente e a fargli respingere in pieno la formula: arte = artificio.

Da scriversi a lettere d’oro — a edificazione dei pizzicagnoli del cinematografo internazionale — il suo rifiuto di girare in « studio », a Hollywood, un film popolare e il conseguente scioglimento del contratto che lo legava alla Casa americana.

Murnau aveva capito i tempi nuovi, il « rinnovarsi o morire » che incombe sul cinematografo. Aveva cominciato a capire che questo deve essere esperienza dolorosa, interesse di fatti, essenzialità, documento bruciante di vita, sincerità, ricerca delle verità psicologiche le più interessanti, le più umane…

Fino a qual punto abbia compreso queste cose ce lo dice il suo ultimo film: Tabù.

Ecco i principali films realizzati da Murnau:

La terra che fiammeggia, Nosferatu il vampiro, Tartufo, Faust, L’ultimo degli uomini (periodo tedesco, caratterizzato da tendenze fantastico-espressionistiche).

Periodo americano:

Aurora, I quattro diavoli, Nostro pane quotidiano, Tabù.

I primi tre films di questo secondo periodo sono dei tentativi interessanti (ma riusciti fino ad un certo punto) di conciliare  le sue esigenze artistiche con quelle dell’ambiente e del commercio americano. Conciliazioni che — come in questo caso — difficilmente riescono.

Tabù ci presenta un Murnau se non rinnovato per lo meno modificato dal « documentario ». Sebbene « documentario » non significhi ancora per lui realismo al 100 per 100 (materia interessante appunto perché più difficile a plasmarsi e interpretarsi artisticamente), tuttavia questo suo nuovo atteggiamento è molto interessante, specialmente ricollegato a certe esigenze del cinema d’oggi.

Mario Serandrei
(I cineasti celebri, novembre 1931)

La Bru, réalisée par F. W. Murnau

Je vais vous charger d'une mission importante, dit-il.

Je vais vous charger d’une mission importante, dit-il.

Production Fox-Film.

Le fermier Tustine était un homme riche: il possédait de vastes champs de blé dans l’Etat de Minnesota. C’était un homme rigide et intransigeant, qui ne semblait vivre que pour le travail, il ne montrait quelques joies qu’en voyant pousser ses récoltes. Il ne s’était jamais séparé de son fils, Lem, un grand garçon qui venait d’atteindre l’âge d’homme, et ce fut avec une véritable émotion que son père, un jour, le fit venir près de lui.

— Je vais vous charger d’une mission importante, Lem, lui dit-il: vous allez quitter la campagne pour la ville. J’ai quelques milliers de boisseaux de grains, que je vous charge de vendre à Chicago; j’espère que vous saurez défendre mes intérêts, qui sont les vôtres.

— Je ferai mon possible, dit Lem.

Sitôt arrivé, il se dirigea vers un restaurant modeste pour prendre de la nourriture. Rt là, Lem, tout en examinant le menu, regardait la jolie servante qui travaillait dans la salle. Elle avait l’air d’une honnête fille, et sa simplicité frappa Lem. Il avait rêvé pour compagne d’une femme pareille. Et, quand la jeune fille vint pour le servir, il lui parla sans hésiter:

— Est-ce que votre vie vous plaît ici?

— Pas beaucoup, fit-elle, mais on réalise pas tous ses rêves.

— Quel était votre rêve? fit Lem.

— J’ai toujours rêvé de vivre à la campagne, dit la jeune fille. Il me semble que le bonheur n’est possible que dans une existence saine et libre.

— C’est celle que je vous offre, si vous voulez bien l’accepter, dit Lem.

— Est-ce que vous ne vous moquez pas de moi?

— Non, dit-il, je vous ai remarquée en ouvrant la porte.

Et Lem ne quitta plus la jeune servante, il l’emmena devant un pasteur et le mariage eut lieu. Lem était véritablement fou de bonheur et il se présenta à la ferme en compagnie de sa femme. Mais il avait compté sans la mauvaise humeur de son père; le vieux Tustine les accueillit fort mal tous les deux. A Lem il reprocha d’avoir vendu le blé au-dessous du cours qui lui avait été fixé. Quant a Kate, il l’accusa d’être une intruse. On eût pu croire que le vieux Tustine s’habituerait au jeune ménage. Mais la vie à la ferme devint, pour les jeunes gens, insupportable. Tustine mena la guerre contre sa bru, la malmenant et la rudoyant sans cesse. Et, peu à peu, le vieillard arriva à ses fins: il sema la discorde chez les nouveaux mariés. Sur ces entrefaites, una équipe de moissonneurs était arrivée. Un rude et beau garçon, nommé Mac, remarqua Kate et tenta de l’arracher à ce milieu pour lequel elle ne semblait pas faite. Mais elle n’y faisait pas attention. Le drame arriva. Un soir, devant un cyclone imminent, le vieux fermier demanda à ses ouvriers de travailler toute la nuit pour sauver le plus possible des récoltes. Les hommes y consentirent. Mac fut blessé à la main par la faucheuse-lieuse et dut se faire soigner par la jeune femme. Tandis que  Kate le pansait, il essayait de la caresser. C’est ainsi que Tustine les surprit. Il exulta. Il savait quelle sorte de femme était l’ancienne serveuse de restaurant et il en avisa Lem. Il insulta Kate. Mac s’interposa. Et, quand le fermier fut parti, il dit à la jeune femme:

— Dites que vous me suivrez et je vous vengerai. J’obtiendrai de mes camarades qu’ils abandonnent le travail et nous partirons et je vous rendrai heureuse.

Kate demanda quelques minutes pour préparer sa malle. A ce moment, surgit Lem, fou de colère, menaçant Kate et Mac. Alors Kate, désespérée, s’enfuit, laissant une lettre à l’homme qu’elle n’avait cessé d’aimer. Cette lettre disait:

« Lem, je pars seule, je pansais pouvoir t’aider en restant, mais lorsque j’ai vu que tu croyais à un mensonge au sujet de Mac et de moi, je me suis rendu compte que tout était inutile et je n’ai plus qu’à te dire adieu. »

Lem comprenait son erreur. Il voulut partir à la recherche de sa femme; mais le vieux Tustine, le fusil à la main, s’était posté à la clôture de la ferme, prêt à abattre le premier qui abandonnerait son travail. Et c’est son fils qu’il tira. Heureusement, Lem ne fut pas touché, et le fermier tomba aux pieds de son fils. Mais Lem ne pensait qu’à Kate, il courut après elle, dans la nuit, et finit par la ramener au foyer, où le vieux fermier la reçut enfin comme sa fille.
(Ciné-Miroir, 8 Août 1930) 

Il successo del film I 4 diavoli a Milano

Cine Sorriso Illustrato, Torino 11 agosto 1929

Cine Sorriso Illustrato, Torino 11 agosto 1929

La Fox ha voluto iniziare la serie dei suoi trionfi presentando in visione contemporanea al San Carlo ed al Colosseo il grandioso film I 4 diavoli.

Milano tutta passando nelle due sale ha manifestato il suo compiacimento per il vero godimento artistico che tale capolavoro offre.

Il mago della cinematografia, F. W. Murnau, dopo Aurora aveva un compito ben difficile, per non dire quasi impossibile: creare un lavoro superiore ad Aurora che universalmente è stato giudicato il più bel film mai fatto.

Questo compito difficile, per non dire impossibile, Murnau ha affrontato senza ombra di esitazione ideando la realizzazione del vecchio lavoro di Herman Bang I 4 diavoli e scegliendo come interpreti Janet Gaynor, Mary Duncan, Nancy Drexel, Barry Norton, Charles Morton e Farrell Mac Donald. L’opera che egli ha creato con la collaborazione di questi artisti ha superato Aurora; e l’ha superata dando vita ad un lavoro intonato ad una sensibilità latina in confronto al carattere nordico di Aurora. Il grande dramma dei 4 diavoli è più forte del dramma di Aurora ma è reso con una tecnica più nostra ed avvincente e commuove di più.

Janet Gaynor ha reso la sua parte con quella squisita arte che solo lei sa avere di sfumature e di slanci che hanno fatto di lei la più simpatica attrice dello schermo. Accanto a lei Mary Duncan, la nuova grande stella lanciata quest’anno dalla Fox Film, e che è considerata la più elegante e seducente donna d’America, ha rivelato qualità artistiche superiori dando alla sua parte di grande dama avida di piacere una meravigliosa vita. Barry Norton, Charles Morton, Farrell Mac Donald e Nancy Drexel, soave e bellissima di altra bellezza, nella sua grazia giovanile, compongono un complesso artistico perfetto quale non poteva essere meglio scelto, né dare migliore interpretazione.
(Kines, Roma 15 settembre 1929)

Flaherty Creative Iconoclast

Robert J. Flaherty

Robert J. Flaherty

An Impression of the Man Who Sailed for the South Seas to Make an All-Color Silent Motion Picture in the Face of the Talkie Vogue
by Harry Carlisle

“Nannok of the North”— Robert J. Flaherty — “Moana of the South Seas” — and now — Bob Flaherty is on his way to the South Seas to make another picture, this time in color, and with F. W. Murnau as co-producer and director.

Flaherty’s name has always been associated with beauty in pictures, just as Murnau’s has been significant of advanced technique and dramatic effectiveness.

Flaherty is a ruddy, hearty individual, mentally and physically active almost without pause. Seldom does he seem quite relaxed. He cannot sit still for long, but rises from his chair and strides the room constantly. He smokes cigarettes with the same hurried tempo that he unfolds his thoughts — thoughts that are keenly analytical, pungently witty, informative, stimulating, and covering a wide assortment of subjects in an incredibly short space of time. It is typical of him that he flies to extremes in thought as he hitherto has flown to extremes with regard to picture making locales. He admires the mechanical aspects of civilized life in themselves but damns them for their effect on the human being. He identifies the unspoiled primitive with the highly civilized, and echoes the thought with satirical and refreshing phrases anent the inhibitions of mass life, patriotisms, dogmas, and general inanities.

He pays little attention to his clothes, which are a mere matter of convenience: he terms handsome leading men “drug store clerks out of work.” From a discussion of Eskimo amours at sixty below zero, he swings to an interpretation of life in the Antipodes, pointing out that it is “sexless” in the sense that civilized people know it because it has none of the false trappings and romantic delusions with which we surround it. And in the next sentence he has seized another conversational cue and is dissertating upon the possibilities of color as a dramatic medium, and the stupidities perpetrated by the general run of producers.

He is seldom conscious of “proper” decorum, and when at the lunch table is apt to lounge forward, leaning heavily upon his elbow while discussing the most abstract forms of art. He has nothing but scorn for the type of “social vacuity” and nicety so much a part of Hollywood life, and is equally indifferent to Hollywood’s commercial aspects. He has no money sense, spends freely, is embarrassingly generous and gives presents on the slightest provocation; and, by that token, is easily imposed upon.

Flattery makes Flaherty flush. He shuffles uncomfortably when his work is praised, albeit he knows his own worth as a creative artist — and also knows his limitations. For the latter reason he never ceases talking intensely of the ultimate technique of picture making— a technique which was dimly being grasped just prior to the advent of talking pictures, and which has been temporarily thrust into the discard.

“Fluidity — the essence of the medium,” he declares, “has been abandoned in favor of static dialogue. To my mind talking pictures, unless they discover a more advanced technique than is evident in present productions, should be confined to society drama.”

This does not mean that the old silent form was near its ultimate goal. On the contrary, Flaherty points out that the real, the ultimate values of screen expression as an art form have not yet been achieved. A handful of people have come near to dim recognition of essential technique. Chaplin, for instance, though in many of its aspects he, too, is groping.

The interviewer had in mind Flaherty’s own film of New York, a picture confined entirely to the nuances of massed buildings, atmospheric overtones, mechanical pulsations; there was not a human pictured throughout, and the whole was as interpretative of a definite mood of the city as a sonata is descriptive of mood. And yet, the picture was generally dismissed as “a news – reel of New York skyscrapers.”

Flaherty would be the last man to claim thorough understanding “of the ultimate technique which he desires. Nevertheless he has contributed to the screen a form of beauty which is largely abstract, and indicates his leanings. Music can be expressed by motion; drama may be expressed without using the human agency —such is his premise.

He hopes some day to undertake the picturization of that very baffling subject, New York in all its moods and phases.

He is alive to beauty and all about him. He finds compensation for the insignificant phases of life in the shreds of imaginative expression such as the names Indians give their children, and the simplicities of unspoiled people. He is, by force of circumstances, an iconoclast. But no weariness is evident; his iconoclasm is vigorous, healthy, and — creative.

His present mission to the South Seas is not that of a wilfully blinded egotist. He knows that many people are already wearied of the novelty of talking pictures, and that many of those who formerly declared forcibly that the silent picture was dead, now welcome the relaxing influence of silence and rhythmic movement. Furthermore, granted the standard of previous pictures, his new one is assured a genuine welcome by people of artistic appreciation.

His choice of color is based upon careful experiments. Further experiments will be made on locations with a portable camera, before actual shooting with Technicolor cameras is done.

Although the color medium is far from perfect, it nevertheless permits rich gradations. Its most stringent limitation is perhaps that of photographing skies, which always come out with green-blue. With the sea it is a different matter due to association of thought-impression, as the sea varies- in shades of green-blue, and in this connection permits, artistic license. Cloud masses will be substituted for the gaping sky, as splendid blacks and whites are gained with the color camera. Reds are obtained with ease, though care must be taken in composition because of their visual dominance; they too easily detract from the dramatic tableau.

Smiling reminiscently, as we had been discussing his hectic days at Culver City when a story was “missing,” Flaherty declared: “We have a story. A love story. We intend making Papeete our cable base, and for two months will experiment with cameras and prepare the production. I expect the entire operation will take about six months.”

With the addition of a few more creative artists such as Flaherty and Murnau to the picture field in America we would be assured general advance and worthwhile accomplishment.

Flaherty is frank, genuine, and a delightful contrast with the numerous sycophants attached to the picture industry. That he is not a good business man is to his advantage as an artist. We look forward to his forthcoming picture with a great deal of pleasure.
(Hollywood Filmograph, June 23, 1929)

Fox Film stagione 1929-30

Kines, Roma 2 luglio 1929

Kines, Roma 2 luglio 1929

La stagione cinematografica 1928-29 volgendo ormai al termine, le varie ditte e noleggiatrici si preparano all’allestimento dei « grossi calibri » che costituiranno il fulcro della 1929-30.

(…)

Della nuova produzione ricordiamo: due films di Murnau che giungono a noi preceduti dall’eco dei fantastici successi riportati in America, notizia — del resto — superflua quando si pensi al nome del realizzatore: I quattro diavoli, con Janet Gaynor, Mary Duncan, Nancy Drexel, Charles Morton e Barry Norton; Il pane quotidiano, film di intensa emozione e di grandissimo valore artistico e cinematografico.
(Kines, Roma 16 giugno 1929) 

Four Devils Review 1929

A Fox production (part dialogue).

Directed by F. W. Murnau.

THE CAST: Janet Gaynor, Charles Morton, Nancy Drexel, Barry Norton, Mary Duncan, Farrell MacDonald, Michael Visaroff, Andre Cheron, George Davis, Anders Randolph, Claire McDowell, Jack Parker, Philippe de Lacy, Dawn O’Day, Anita Fremault, Wesley Lake.

The hybrid influence of inane dialogue insertions in “Four Devils” utterly ruins the picture. F. W. Murnau built his story and developed his characters by the use of the better type of silent picture technique. “His methodical craftsmanship, while cold in its perfection, was at least in keeping with the original story. A terrific tragedy was to be logically expected. Instead, from the moment the players began uttering absurd lines in the latter sequences, the picture fell to pieces, and the tragedy happens to the picture — not within it.

It is true that Murnau used some trite situations for effect, such as when he handles the appealing Janet Gaynor with almost saccharine sentiment. Nevertheless, the picture in general was sincere, and from the points of view of characterization alone is worthwhile.

The story concerns four circus performers who in the early sequences are in the charge of a brutal overseer. They eventually escape their bondage with the aid of a clown, and become sensational headliners as trapeze performers. Two of them, Janet Gaynor and Charles Morton, are in love — convincingly and sweetly in love. Then comes the vampire, Mary Duncan, who steals Charles away, saps his vitality in a demanding affair, and almost wrecks the lives of the inoffensive lovers. (In Murnau’s version, as in the original story, the lovers actually die. But could the lovely Janet be permitted to die?…Hardly!)

Atmospherically the picture is sombre, perhaps over sombre. That is Murnau’s knack of using every technical means to effect his end. There is no question but that his shot of a dreary street and dreary people was splendid for his purpose. Less advisable was his clothing of the vampire in traditional black. However, Mary Duncan’s character is in itself perfectly delineated, though a trifle removed from the understanding of the average box-office patron. She was, in truth, a true example of a European woman of ample means and strange whims. That her walk, suddenly projected without preparation, is rather laughable, is unfortunate. It is here that cutting is particularly deadly, while it is merely atrocious throughout the picture.

Janet Gaynor and her fellow players lose nothing by Murnau’s direction, except perhaps some degree of their “movie” personalities. And Janet’s speaking debut, regarded merely as such, is quite good. As a contribution to the story it is of a piece with the rest of the dialogue — stupid, out-of-place, and destructive rather than an aid. That she is made to contribute to general inanity is not her fault, nor is it that of Murnau. All concerned are defenceless in the face of whomsoever revised and edited the production.

Worthy of praise is the shot of Morton flying back and forth on the trapeze just above Mary Duncan’s head. An effective introduction, and excellent camera work. And for once we have some genuine French atmosphere, as witness the staircase and realistic sets.

Incidentally, “Four Devils” was made in Europe some 15 years ago. So far as the last part of the present picture is concerned, it is probable that the technique employed is similar.
(Reviewed at the Carthay Circle, Hollywood Filmograph, New-York, June 15, 1929)