The Moon, the opposite of the sun, hovers over us by night, the opposite of day.
In F.W. Murnau’s Tabu (1931), Reri, the sacred maiden of the small island of Bora Bora, writes this to her lover Matahi:
And indeed, when Matahi chases after her, the moon spreads its path on the sea.
He runs and swims after her, moving faster than a normal human being, defying the laws of gravity.
Miraculously, he catches up to the boat.
Thus, he must die, sinking back into a void…
…while ghost ships linger on in the distance…
…carrying another hopeless romantic, and a moving corpse—A second Nosferatu.
The moon is absent in Murnau’s earlier film, made nearly ten years before Tabu, but it is in the one he made nearly five years after Nosferatu, when George O’Brien leaves his wife for a midnight rendezvous with another woman.
And indeed, dominated by the moon, he dreams of killing his wife.
But this couple renew their vows; they fall back in love.
The sun rises for them.
A new day begins.
Why is it that the final shots of two films by the same man are so different? Even the final shots of Nosferatu are affirmative.
What is this?
No sun, no moon and dark skies. Maybe its a loss of faith, The end of an ideal? Is it a coincidence then that Murnau died not long after the completion of Tabu, not even living long enough to see its release?
Two years later, John Ford, facing the death of his own mother, has the moon dominate his world as well. We know these lovers are doomed.
Indeed, Jim (the young man) is only afforded approximately one minute and ten seconds of life after he goes to war, covered in dirt and rubble as if he were nothing.
Ford’s position towards the moon will change, for example when the moon itself helps the young jack-leg lawyer solve his first case in Young Mr. Lincoln.
But the moon will retain its menace and appear in the most unlikely of places….
In a film of Charlie Chaplin, Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
--when he decides to kill one of his wives.
And day exists only to mask the unspeakable horrors that take place during the night:
“What a night!”
“Yes, full moon.”
“How beautiful, this pale Endymion hour.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Endymion, my dear. The beautiful youth possessed by the moon.”
Prior to committing this crime, Chaplin, once the most beloved man in the world, sits at his piano and plays innocently: the ultimate sociopath.
In the words of his son Sydney: “My father was the kind of person who couldn’t hurt a fly, but who could definitely kill a man.”
But the moon can still be beautiful, and again in the most unlikely of places. Josef von Sternberg, perhaps the greatest of the fatalistic directors, gives us men stranded on an island, hell-bent on destroying each other. Then, all of a sudden he gives them and us a brief moment of repose, as though experiencing tranquility for the very first time. In Anatahan (1953).
“This river is full of illusion, passion, pain, and sorrow. Only when you cross the river, having fought the currents of temptation to gain the far shore, can you reach enlightenment. This was the time where we thought of our families.”
Some even search the skies and avoid the moon, and find other sources of beauty.
“Where to now sir?”
“Where? I don’t know, Mishka!”
“Are you looking at the comet, sir?”
“They say it means something bad. They say it means war and famine and plague. All sorts of wars.”
“Nonsense Mishka. A comet is beautiful. Goliath is beautiful. Go Mishka! Go on! Take me anywhere!”
Chaplin again, who loses the pessimism of Verdoux and glories in moonlight shining over the ocean:
Some accept the moon.
Like Pier Paolo Pasolini, who opens The Hawks and Sparrows (1966) with its image.
And after the opening credits, finds the moon both the ultimate form of and the answer to all of life’s mysteries.
Jerry Lewis, who doesn’t see why there should be any difference between moonlight and sunlight:
Godard, who sees the moon as just another piece of the universe that is beyond human comprehension, so we can only meditate on it:
Rossellini, who doesn’t even bother with the moon, because everything is affirmative. If it exists, it is beautiful.
To look at something is to discover something.
Indeed, he ends his final film with images of clouds.
He reminds me of Vidor in a way. While Vidor doesn’t achieve the abstraction of Rossellini, who realizes that the most important things are the simplest, Vidor realizes that even more interesting than the moon are clouds covering the moon.
The Straubs too, are filmmakers of land and sky:
In The Death of Empedocles (1987), the main character is even introduced in a five minute segment which consists solely of him talking to a tree.
In The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), the great composer will spend his final moments looking out the window at trees, even though he has already gone blind.
But of course, the husband-wife filmmaking team, so invested in nature, must turn their eyes to the sky even at night, and must acknowledge the moon….
…which rises out of the shadows as though Murnau has been reborn. And thus, in Moses and Aron (1974), the sudden appearance of the moon is followed by a mass suicide.
The moon becomes an unstoppable force, denying and destroying everything in its wake.
When the moon appears out of nowhere, unprovoked, in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991), the atmosphere has already gotten unbearably tense, but this appearance, as though teasing, only confirms what we already suspect. Everything has gone wrong. Something horrifying is about to happen.
Perhaps all we can do is make like the Straubs.
Like a candle lighting an entire room, to look at the moon means the space around you becomes a space of contemplation.
So in Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), he dedicates nearly 25 minutes to an image (or a series of images) of the moon over water.
“like the reflection of a water lily in a pond”
Just like Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928), when a ship stoker looking for a rowdy night and a quick lay saves a suicidal prostitute from drowning, and ends up marrying her in the same night.
The last time we will see the moon, is on the last day of earth.
Moments before Willem Dafoe relapses into the heroin addiction he had kicked two years earlier:
—but then he throws away his drugs.
Murnau’s romantics are not hopeless.
Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931)
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933)
Monsieur Verdoux (Charlie Chaplin, 1947)
The Saga of Anatahan (Josef Von Sternberg, 1953)
War and Peace (King Vidor, 1956)
A Countess From Hong Kong (Charlie Chaplin, 1966)
Hawks and Sparrows (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966)
The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, 1960)
Hail Mary (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)
Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)
India: Matri Bhumi (Roberto Rossellini, 1959)
The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)
The Messiah (Roberto Rossellini, 1976)
Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929)
Workers, Peasants (Daniele Huilet & Jean-Marie Straub, 2002)
The Death of Empedocoles (Daniele Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1987)
The Chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach (Daniele Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1968)
Moses and Aron (Daniele Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1974)
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
From The Clouds To The Resistance (Daniele Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1979)
In Vanda's Room (Pedro Costa, 2000)
Five Dedicated to Ozu (Abbas Kiarostami, 2003)
The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
4:44 Last Day On Earth (Abel Ferrara, 2011)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)
Our Daily Bread is a column on not necessarily beautiful images, nor similar images, but images that when brought together interact in meaningful ways.