Starring: Gosta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, William Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert
Director: F.W. Murnau
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is so familiar, such a bedrock of cinema, that it’s almost impossible to view it otherwise than through the lens of its renown and historical significance. That’s not a problem with the same director’s Faust (1926). Despite being a hugely prestigious production at the time, it’s one of his lesser known efforts now, and it thus provides a perfect opportunity to admire his skill as a director with fresh eyes.
And what a consummate skill it was. Murnau had a fluency with camerawork and editing, a control of tone and tempo, an ability to shape sequences for maximum dramatic impact, that was almost unparalleled in the silent era. Faust opens with a series of stunning, FX-laden scenes. First there’s a gusty airborne faceoff between an eagle-winged Mephisto (Emil Jannings), singed black by the flames of hell, and an angle in dazzling armour, who agree to have a wager on Faust’s soul. Then we cut to Faust (Gosta Ekman) himself, a whiskery old man hunched over a glass sphere full of flickering, luminous mist. Mephisto devastates Faust’s home town with the plague (the scenes of crazed, hysterical revelry among the townsfolk would be lifted by Werner Herzog for his ’70s Nosferatu remake). Unable to find a cure, Faust turns from God and summons the forces of darkness at an eerie, moonlit crossroads, and a shadowy, shiny-eyed Mephisto appears, doffing his cap to him. Finally, Mephisto tempts Faust with youth and earthly pleasures and whisks him off over Alps (shot by tracking the camera over a vast scale model) to the sumptuous wedding of the Duchess of Parma, complete with dancing girls and giant elephants (made of fabric, but looking startlingly real).
This first segment contains some of the most exciting imagery you’re likely to find in a film of this period, and it’s propels itself forward in rhythms that we still respond to – brisk, unflagging, building to crescendo after crescendo, now frightening, now spectacular. Faust was a massively expensive enterprise, the effects-driven tent-pole movie of its day (Ufa, the studio responsible for it, were in financial difficulties and attempting to spend their way out of trouble). At the other end of the scale from Nosferatu, which Murnau filmed quickly, mostly on location, reeling off one classic scene after another, this was a painstaking six-month shoot involving many retakes, all in the studio, under arc lights that were unbearably hot and flickered terribly and that made everything look a sickly green colour to the naked eye.
By all rights, Faust ought to be a much better film than Nosferatu, and yet it’s hampered by a conventional and pious moral framework and by the character of Faust himself, who is an acutely unsatisfactory figure for modern audiences. Early on, the script does a good job of bringing him to life – it takes as its key his sense of failure; others may think he’s a success, but he doesn’t. As soon as he becomes young and handsome, though, he simply evaporates off the screen. The really scary and compelling movie scientists pursue their mad quest for knowledge regardless of cost; Faust is a seeker after enlightenment who abandons his search just when he has the chance to plumb the secrets of creation, all because Mephisto waggles a pair of breasts in his face.
And what adds insult to injury is that we’re not even privy to his debauches. There’s a rather disappointing jump cut where Faust goes from kissing the Duchess of Parma to sitting there glumly, bored and sated, having tasted all of life’s pleasures, and the audience doesn’t get to witness a single moment of it (apparently Murnau planned to shoot at least one decent orgy for the American market, but it never happened). After that, the mood of the middle section of the film is light and comic operetta-ish as Faust returns home and romances a virtuous young girl, while Mephisto has to distract her watchful aunt. Nicely done though this section is – and it’s distinguished by a surprisingly fresh and touching performance by the lovely Camilla Horn as the girl Faust wrongs – it’s a relief when the sunny interlude turns to tragedy again and the scene is set for a demonically menacing burning at the stake sequence that pre-echoes the famous opener of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.
Yet whatever its flaws, there are few films of the silent era outside of the comedies of Keaton and Chaplin that are more readily watchable than Faust. The trick shots, the mammoth sets and models by Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig (the design team also responsible for Caligari), Emil Jannings’ gurningly satanic turn, the bravura set-pieces – all these are so imaginative and brilliantly wrought that you mentally edit out the pieties and moments of dramatic slack.
And Faust has never looked better than it does right now. At the time when the film was made, it was difficult and very expensive to copy negatives, so they would use inferior takes and extra footage to cobble together additional negatives which could be exported to distributors around the world, while the very best takes were reserved for the domestic and American negatives. For many decades, Faust was known only by one of these inferior export prints. This Blu-ray presents, as its primary version, a fresh transfer made from the domestic negative. Pictorially, it’s very impressive, with no print damage and a lovely deep contrast. In some of the scenes, Carl Hoffmann’s cinematography still has quite a crumbly, charcoal sketch-like quality, but that seems to have been a deliberate aesthetic as it matches the look of the intertitles, and it certainly adds to the at times hallucinatory, nightmarish quality of the movie.
The domestic version comes with three choices of score – solo harp or piano, and an excellent full orchestral score by Timothy Brock (the accompaniment to the crossing of the Alps and the visit to the Duchess of Parma’s wedding is particularly ravishing). Also present on the disc is the more familiar export version, which is somewhat murkier, grainier and scratchier but still very enjoyable. Among the extras, there’s a detailed 26-minute video essay comparing the two versions. It makes a convincing case that the “new” version is much superior in all areas – optical FX, lighting, composition, performances and editing (the “old” version is eight minutes longer). (Although one thing it doesn’t mention, which a few readers might be interested in, is that in the export version there are glimpses of bare breasts in the plague revellers scene and the vision of love that Mephisto gives Faust, but not in the domestic version.)
In addition, there’s a very thorough 52-minute German language “making of” documentary. This explains the complicated business of the multiple negatives and paints a detailed picture of the shoot. It would seem that Camilla Horn had a lot to put up with – Murnau (who originally wanted Lilian Gish or Greta Garbo for the role) dictated her every gesture (you can see by comparing the various takes how meticulously she followed his instructions) and in the burning at the stake sequence she was left tied to the post for hours, in solid iron chains, so that she would look convincingly exhausted, starved and broken (despite all of which, she fell in love with the director and allegedly remained so until the end of her days).
There’s also a 39-minute talking head piece with film historian Tony Rayns, who gives further background info on Ufa, on Murnau’s early career acting with Max Reinhardt’s theatre company and his and Jannings’ move to Hollywood. (Faust is a film about selling out, and ironically Murnau and Jannings were both trying to do just that – abandoning the faltering Ufa, they had already signed contracts with Hollywood studios. Faust was to be Murnau’s last German film.)
Finally, there an engaging audio commentary by film critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn. Eureka have really gone all out on the special features for this release, and taken as a whole they teach you a huge amount about not just how this particular film was made but about the filmmaking process in general at that period, and it’s all extremely fascinating.