Film Commentary: A Touch of Awe

At a time when special effects in films are increasingly computerized, it is inspiring to be reminded that images can be more than surfaces that thrill. A festival of movies by the master of the silent cinema, F.W. Murnau, will screen at the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Film Archive (with support from the Goethe-Institut Boston) on October 1-13, 2004. The films of this German director, claims one critic, “partake of the awesome.”

By Bill Marx

But what does it mean for movies to be “awesome?” The term suggests a religious lite experience in which a work of art cultivates feelings of the transcendent in audiences. Over the decades, the notion has degenerated into a commercial and academic cliche; a film’s special effects are proclaimed to be so eye-popping or dreamlike they transport audiences into another realm, usually the supernatural or the extraterrestrial. Some critics think the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the Harry Potter series are awesome.

But this domesticates awe by confusing the allure of technology with the demands of depth. The best films of F.W. Murnau are numinous because the director fuses psychological insights with dazzling pictorial beauty. Murnau shapes his images, such as the trolley ride from the country into the city in his masterpiece “Sunrise,” to reflect the evolving inner lives of his characters. Murnau’s supple visuals, from the giddy sensuality of the exotic in “Tabu” to the playful surrealism of “Faust” and the Teutonic mechanics of abasement in “The Last Laugh,” invite introspection, not simply surprise.

“Nosferatu” is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, partly because the nausea it evokes counters the tame dread of “Interview with a Vampire” and its ilk, where beautiful people suck out each other’s designer blood. Murnau dramatizes the physical and moral degeneracy of evil; the clinical disembowelments in today’s horror movies suggest that awe has only become escapism writ large, a way to scissor viewers out of reality for a few hours. For Murnau, contact with the astonishing should make viewers aware of their own fragility, which, ironically, is closer to the Bible’s concept of awe. When confronted with the transcendent, humans not only gape, they struggle, protest, and question.

Yet Murnau’s genius lies in more than the gorgeous expressionistic visuals he created on screen. It is also expressed, as critic Dudley Andrew writes, in his sly use of “the power of the unseen and unframed.” Few directors are more adept at suggesting the life that sits just outside of the camera’s range. We cannot always trust how Murnau frames a shot: he purposely ignores or overlooks important information and then casually or shockingly reveals it. “We constantly run our eyes around the perimeter of the screen in search of the unknown,” says Andrew admiringly.

Today’s special effects extravaganzas, like the mega-corporations that finance them, are about packaging the imagination: nothing of interest lies outside of the well-groomed, computer-generated images. Murnau knew that mystery is about what you can’t see. This retrospective includes restored prints of the director’s early, lesser known films as well as his best known works. In addition, there will be live musical accompaniment, including the terrific Alloy Orchestra performing its score for “Nosferatu.” Those who lack awe in their lives will want to take in as many films as they can.

Click here for the calendar of show times of Murnau’s films at the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Film Archive on Oct.1 – 13, 2004.

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