I was wrong in thinking that Herr Tartüff (1925) was Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s only comedy. Murnau had already made Die Finanzen des Großherzogs; and while it isn’t as brilliant as Herr Tartüff—the difference in quality may be Molière—it also marks Murnau as a wonderful maker of silent comedy, however difficult that may be to process. Moreover, the film’s centerpiece is a terrific performance.
Roman, the Grand Duke of the island of Abacco, is on the brink of foreclosure and of being deposed; but the rich Russian Princess Olga, who has written him with her intention of marrying him, may rescue him. Various intrigues and conspiracies, however, threaten to divert this happy resolution.
Among the co-conspirators arrayed against poor Roman is a devilishly funny hunchback who reminded me of one of my favorite Poe characters: Hop-Frog. But this isn’t the performance to which I earlier referred. Twenty-four years before Irving Reis’s All My Sons and Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman—for both of which I named her 1948’s best supporting actress—Mady Christians is marvelously resourceful as adventurous Olga. Nearly as good is Alfred Abel as Collins, a scammer and schemer with a repertoire of false identities. Harry Liedtke is pleasant as the Grand Duke.
Murnau throughout gives his sense of humor charmingly visual form, creating lovely sight gags. But just as enjoyable is the spirit he has given to the piece, which somewhat resembles Philippe de Broca’s spoofs of intrigue and spy adventures in the mid-1960s. But, of course, Murnau has a footing on much more solid cinematic ground as he reflects (in the wake of the Great War, which Germany lost) on the shakiness of political power.
Dachshund lovers: this film also has something for you.
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