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During the heyday of silent movies in Germany, the celebrated director F.W. Murnau specialised in translating his expertise in art history and German literature into the exciting new and evolving language being developed for the cinema. It was a language he’d helped influence during the postwar Weimar era through his adoption of the very lighting methods his one-time theatre mentor and collaborator, the impresario Max Reinhardt, had once brought to the German stage; and also through his innovative and ground-breaking use of the moving camera, in the process freeing cinema forever from its stage-bound beginnings and establishing it as a vital new art form in its own right. Murnau was also a great visual poet of moving pictures and, as his biographer Lotte Eisner once noted, created ‘the most overwhelming and poignant images in the whole of German cinema’ in the act of interpreting his favourite traditions in landscape art and romantic literature for their tableau equivalents on the big screen.
His amazing 1926 adaptation of the traditional German folk tale of “Faust” displays most acutely how Murnau’s ability to oversee the magical photographic chiaroscuro effects (that later came to play such a prominent role in noir cinema) poetically animated his mise-en-scene through their play of light and shadow and brought depth, beauty and an ambiguous mystery to this simple mythical story of good versus evil. Murnau is often rather simplistically thought of as an Expressionist director because of just this kind of absolute mastery of lighting, and the often eerie effects he was able to achieve through in-camera trickery. In reality, films such as “Faust” and “Nosferatu”, for all their Gothic-expressionist grandeur, were less influenced by the aggressively modernist abstract ideals of contemporary graphic artistic movements like Expressionism (which gained their currency in the aftermath of the First World War), than they were by art that embodied quaint historical traditions that looked wistfully back to a nostalgic past characterised by Weimar culture’s obsession with Medievalism and myth.
The Faust legend was particularly fertile subject matter for those concerned with embracing this ideal of national consciousness through cinematic art: with roots in stories from the mists of time about a conjurer-scholar who practiced healing of the sick in central Europe, the Faust myth transmuted over centuries into a Germanic chapbook tale about an alchemist’s deal with the Devil, selling his soul in order to experience his youth once more and to gain access to a knowledge that should remain forbidden to man, as his means of curing sufferers of the plague. The sixteenth century Jacobean comic tragedy of Christopher Marlow, the epic, two-part eighteenth century philosophical play by the German playwright and poet Goethe, and the Grand Opera written by nineteenth-century French composer Charles Gounod, all played their part in maintaining the Faust legend as a vital piece of cultural folkloric tradition that survived well into the scientific and industrial ages of the twentieth century, where it was to become a moralistic parable that quickly became fitting subject matter for the photographic ‘alchemy’ of countless early one-reel shorts during the fledgling days of the silent cinema, including versions by pioneers in special effects such as Georges Méliès and the Lumiere Brothers.
Murnau’s “Faust”, though, remains the most impressive screen interpretation of the myth to this day. Hans Kyser’s script takes elements from the many previous artistic interpretations and weaves them into an dazzling spectacle that seems to form itself out of air and nitrate to materialise on our screens as if by magic during the opening moments of the film: flickers of light in a velvety darkness reveal fleeting shadows and smoky embers forming themselves around an image of the forces of good and evil meeting in a celestial realm between Heaven and Hell … as though we’re actually bearing witness to the creation of a fictional universe as it simultaneously unveils itself to us, beginning with the first of many impressive special effects – this one featuring a trio of demonic skeletal horsemen on their monstrous steeds -- which were to establish the film’s position as one of Ufa’s premier blockbuster spectacles of the decade alongside Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, which borrowed some of the effects innovated by Murnau’s prestigious team of technicians for this film. Ufa, the big studio behind the project, was in financial straits and on the verge of bankruptcy at the time of production; it’s visionary executive Erich Pommer had already left for Hollywood and Muranu himself was soon to follow, “Faust” being his last German film before he took up an offer from William Fox that saw him emigrating to the U.S. and making the classic “Sunrise” the following year.
The first half of “Faust” – now released in HD in its original authentic domestic German print, only rediscovered in the mid-nineties – conforms to many of our received ideas about how German cinema led to the birth of American horror talkies in the 1930s under the auspices of émigré directors such as James Whale, whose work takes a lot from the influence of the Murnau we see here -- overseeing an utterly studio-bound production (in marked contrast to the haunting textures of the outside locations used for “Nosferatu”) in which every visual element is artificially designed to complement the rich spectacle of the imagination which helps create a recognisable visual recipe for ‘Gothic fantasy’ and ‘ fairy-tale fable’ that is still regularly drawn on by film-makers today. For this recipe, the director chose from a varied cook book inclusive of artistic and scholarly reference points taking in everything from the etchings of Gustave Doré to the painted works of Rembrandt.
The opening scene presents us with one of the most grotesquely memorable representations of the traditional Devil figure in cinema: Emil Jannings, the former stage actor who became one of the top stars of the silent cinema in the 1920s (he later appeared alongside Marlene Dietrich in her 1929 von Sternberg debut “The Blue Angel”), goes through a number of physical transformations throughout the picture in the role of the demon Mephisto. This first one establishes the Devil in his true form as a animalistic chimera – a horned visage with an ape-man’s body and bear-like claws attached to an enveloping cloak of black-feathered swans’ wings -- a thing of earthly vice as well as of supernatural derivation. His opposite is an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) in the shape of an Aryan white knight who emerges from a halo of light that shines out of the smoke-strewn darkness of the void, in order to wager with Mephisto over control of the earth. The archangel sees goodness in man’s striving for beauty and truth; the demon sees greed, avarice and vanity. They bet on the soul of Faust (Gösta Ekman) – an elderly apothecary and scientist with an interest in alchemy – which Mephisto believes he can show to be corrupted despite Faust’s noble calling, because he is convinced that no man can resist evil when presented with adequate opportunity to do wrong.
The next forty-minutes of the film showcase Murnau’s painterly eye for composition and form as cinematographer Carl Hoffman provides technical precision as well as artistic brio with his realisation of the director’s flamboyantly baroque vision, bringing to life the imagined struggle between the forces of light and darkness perpetually being played out on earth: Murnau’s camera rarely moves during this part of the picture, yet the scenes are filled with life and animation, from the flicker of shadows and the play of heat and light from spiralling smoke and flashes of fire in Faust’s lab as he oversees his alchemical experiments, to the billowing soot and flames from the funeral pyres later seen burning amid Walter Röhrig’s grand studio sets, after Mephisto sets a plague upon Faust’s town which leads him to reject both God and medicine in despair, and turn to the dark arts in order to save his people from their dire fate.
These opening scenes set up the whole of Universal’s black-and-white Gothic aesthetic: a shot of Mephisto as a giant metaphysical blight, towering like a bat-shaped giant across the skyline of a magnificently detailed miniature of the plague-ridden town (complete with smoking chimneys) is iconic; the dance of death sequence, in which the townsfolk respond to their plight by indulging in a drunken dance macabre through the crowded streets (this quite possibly influenced Werner Herzog’s remake of “Noseferatu”, which included a similar scene) as hollow-eyed priests wave their crucifixes in puritanical defiance amid the chaos, only to succumb to Mephisto’s scourge, is indicative of the kind of imagery which would crop up in countless horror films in the coming years.
The film’s horror influences reach their crescendo with the sequence in which the elderly Faust -- with Ekman made up to look like a Biblical prophet from a Renaissance painting -- meets Mephisto in the nightmarish form of a spectral imp with glowing eyes that he conjures up at an eerie, mist-shrouded crossroads after invoking the forces of darkness. This imp subsequently materialises inside Faust’s study despite repeated attempts to evade the creature, offering him the chance to cure the town of the virulent spread of disease if he agrees to a one day trial of Mephisto’s powers -- after which he will then be offered a chance to be served on earth for the rest of his life as long as he is prepared to sacrifice his eternal soul at the completion of it. Utilising Hoffman’s camera expertise to effect fantastical imagery using matte shots and superimpositions, Murnau expands on the horrific spectacle presented by Max Shreck in his role as Nosferatu when Jannings becomes a malevolent ghostly sprite who pushes Faust to the edge of suicide after the townsfolk he’s just saved turn against him, realising he has become an emissary of demonic forces.
Mephisto’s plan to expose Faust’s corrupt soul then sees him offer the scholar a chance to relive his youth and experience the joys of the flesh that previously eluded him the first time round when he was too busy with his studies and living the life of the mind to relish experience and sensation. At this point the film relinquishes its moody chiaroscuro ambience and becomes, for a while, almost like an operatic science fiction fantasy, Jannings now making another of Mephisto’s quick change physical transformations and taking on the appearance of a stout, cape-twirling villain from a comic opera, who first appears in order to conjure an erotic image of the Duchess of Parma (Hannah Ralph) and tempt the now youthful Faust (still played by a completely unrecognisable Gösta Ekman) into signing away his soul in blood as a prerequisite for getting at her.
The shots of Faust and Mephisto flying out of the study window and across a wondrous mythical landscape could be said to constitute the beginnings of the special effects-laden spectacles of the blockbuster pictures with which we have been made so familiar today. The optical printing effects may appear primitive to our eyes, but such imagery retains the power to invoke wonder, and the point-of-view ‘aerial’ shots of the insanely detailed model landscape concocted by designer Walter Röhrig (frequently partnered with Robert Herlth in German cinema epics, who here designed the film’s costumes) and which incorporate slate rooftops and church steeples, exotic landscapes complete with volcanic mountains, forests, waterfalls and icy wastelands intercut with footage of strange animated giant birds in flight, are both magical and innovative in that they expand on Murnau’s previous invention of the dolly shot in order to cut the camera loose seemingly completely, to rise above ground as if now liberated from its origins in the static proscenium arch composition inherited from its theatrical tradition. The following sequence takes place in a mythical wonderland version of Italy in the middle ages, full of life-sized puppet elephants and troupes of dancing slave-girls in magnificently ornate courtyards created on grand Ufa sets. Mephisto gate-crashes the Duchess of Pharma’s wedding feast and hypnotises her into abandoning her new husband for Faust, who is finally forced to sell his soul in order to have his way with her when the twenty-four hour trial period runs out just as he’s about to make good on the seduction!
Here the demon Mephisto draws a discreet boudoir curtain across the young Faust’s sexual conquest, and when we next see him, perched on a volcanic precipice like a youthful wanderer in a Caspar David Friedrich portrait, he appears to have lived a whole life full of similar such debauchery off-stage, growing bored with his lot in the process and demanding of Mephisto that he return him to the pastoral idyll of the village setting he nostalgically remembers as his childhood home. Many critics have found the section of the movie which then follows to flag somewhat, since it pulls us out of the dark, mysterious Manichean universe of adventure and Gothic imagination previously established, and into a sort of pantomime sex farce set in fairy-tale rustic studio setting of sylvan glades and enchanted gardens inhabited by rosy cheeked yokels, where Mephisto becomes even more of a mischievous presence by detrimentally interfering in the life of innocent, virginal country girl Gretchen (Camilla Horn, in a part originally intended for Lillian Gish), using the lure of a gold necklace planted in her bedroom drawer in order to draw her into a world of desire and wantonness, thereby bringing death and heartache to her mother (Frieda Richard) and an over-protective brother played by Wilhelm Dieterle -- who would later become a film director and co-helm a Hollywood version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Max Reinhardt and the 1939 version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” starring Charles Laughton, as well as an American Gothic take on the Faust legend, 1941’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”.
Although Faust and Gretchen’s courtship and Mephisto’s behind-the-scenes manipulations (which include a comedy subplot in which the demon himself indulges in a spot of romantic flirting with the village healer [Yvette Guilbert]) suggest a lighter fairy-tale tone, the mood soon turns dark again for the final act when Faust’s lust leads to Gretchen being cast out of the puritanical, God-fearing community and becoming a kind of fallen Madonna, pilloried in the stocks for her immorality and left with child to fend for herself alone while Faust is whisked back to his remote solitude in the mountains. Murnau takes the film into tragic melodrama mode for its finale as Gretchen is lead to the stake to be burned for the murder of her new-born (hallucinating, she buries it in a flurry of snow she mistakes for a crib) and Faust renounces his youth out of love. Mephisto’s plot seems to have worked pretty effectively up till this point, but a last minute technicality allows the concept of Love to act as a Deus ex machina that negates the Devil’s wager, even though he appears to have demonstrated his case pretty convincingly!
Even at the time of release some critics found this popular big screen rendering of a German standard to be something of a vulgarisation of the source material, although Christopher Marlow’s adaptation was equally as bawdy in its way as this spectacle picture, with its audience-pleasing comedy, romance and horror. For years afterwards the film’s reputation suffered somewhat for only being known by various prints made from the export negative used by different countries to make versions doctored to suit the specific appetites of their individual audiences. Since negatives wore out easily when used to make too many prints, often two were made at once -- one for domestic use and another for export purposes. These were created by running two cameras which had been set up side-by-side to film the action simultaneously, which means that each version is composed slightly differently. Murnau set up the shots to best suit the positioning of the camera that would be used when making the negative for domestic use, but the export version also utilises second best takes and rejected shots (some containing visible mistakes such as actors bumping into parts of the set or crew members coming into shot) as well as material not used at all in the more tightly edited German cut, which runs several minutes shorter as a result. When the German version was finally discovered in the 1990s, it revealed the original “Faust” for the first time since its German release in 1926. Presented exactly how Murnau had always intended it to be seen, it turned out to be another of the director’s bona fide masterpieces.
This is now the version presented in glorious HD for this Masters of Cinema release, fully restored by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and complete with the original Gerhart Roehrig-composed German inter-titles. The export version is also present on the disk (non-HD) along with a twenty-five minute ‘version comparison’ documentary which highlights the many differences between the two by running scenes from each side-by-side. If one sticks to the superior German domestic version though, you get a further choice between three very different soundtrack scores, each bringing something unique and different to the film. Javier Perez de Azpeitia provides a traditional piano score that fulfils the regular function of music for silent movies, providing appropriate atmosphere and tracking the changes in emotional tone throughout the film as portrayed by the performances of the cast. Stan Ambrose’s lyrical harp score comes into its own during the more pastoral sections of the movie, emphasising the more tragic elements of this fantastical melodrama; while Timothy Brock’s full orchestral score emphasises just how effectively Murnau’s “Faust” works as a forerunner to the big summer blockbuster movies of the 1970s and 1980s, presenting a full-blooded accompaniment that often sounds like it might’ve come straight from the soundtrack of a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” movie, but which nevertheless feels entirely appropriate.
Significant background on the production of the film is provided by a range of special features, starting with a considered forty-minute historical overview and video analysis by film scholar Tony Rayns, which is complemented by a German produced documentary “The Language of Shadows”, which covers Murnau’s career up until his move to Hollywood in 1926, running at fifty-two-and-a-half minutes in length. There’s also an engrossing audio commentary track – a conversation between film historians David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn, which allows the viewer to dwell on the details of production & casting and analysis of the visual stylisation of the movie in even more detail. If that were not enough, one is also provided with an excellent booklet, featuring a readable essay by Peter Spooner; a piece on the various different versions and negatives in existence by R. Dixon Smith; and extracts from filmmaker Éric Rohmer’s doctoral thesis on the film “The Organisation of Space in Murnau’s Faust” which convey his ideas on the director’s visual language.
This is another quality dual format release (Blu-ray and DVD copies included with the same package) in the Masters of Cinema range, then -- presenting us with the definitive version of Murnau’s hugely influential classic. A must buy.
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