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Middlebrow culture has given Goethe's Faust a bad rap, as a high-toned play for squares; when Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon needs a play to characterize a snooty elitist showman, it chooses Faust. This 1926 Erich Pommer production directed by F. W. Murnau is considered by some to be the very height of German Expressionistic cinema. From the very beginning we know we're dealing with a living drama with plenty of connection to modern audiences. Today's comic book movies have nothing on an opening that depicts the meeting of Absolute Evil and Absolute Goodness. They loom as titanic figures over an Italian landscape from the middle ages, debating Man's freedom to choose Good over Evil.
Kino Video has been quietly issuing sensational restorations of classic German masterpieces restored by the Friedrich Wilhem Murnau Stiftung, including many classics by Fritz Lang. Savant has reviewed several, and is amazed at the quality of the video and the revelations in the disc extras. Faust is just as eye-opening. Back in film school, we'd watch the shabby, incomplete 16mm prints then available and compare them with the few quality stills reproduced in books. These Kino discs are like turning back the clock to the 1920s and Weimar Germany.
We're told that Faust came about after the international success of Murnau's The Last Laugh. Given all the resources of the Ufa studios, Murnau constructed dozens of expressionistic sets and tested elaborate, innovative special effects. As the film needed to be marketed internationally, the actors were international as well. German Emil Jannings had done the play on stage. Swede Gösta Ekman played Faust as both a young and old man. Lilian Gish turned Murnau down at the last minute, so Murnau promoted untried Camilla Horn from stand-in to star. French star Yvette Guilbert, once a headliner at the Moulin Rouge, plays a welcome comedy relief character.
The classic story has been retold and adapted into many forms; the play and movie musical Damn Yankees, for instance, follows the basic outline very closely. A heavenly Archangel (Werner Futterer) wagers with the Devil, Mephisto (Emil Jannings) that he can corrupt the good and moral Faust (Gösta Ekman), an old man with a white beard. Mephisto decimates the city with the plague, until Faust summons Mephisto for help. Mephisto gives the old man a day's "free trial" but conspires to win his soul forever. Faust's fellow citizens reject his miracle cures when it becomes clear that his power is Satanic. Mephisto then offers to restore his client's youth and to allow him to seduce the Duchess of Parma (Hanna Ralph), the most beautiful woman in the world. Too excited to turn back, Faust goes through with the eternal pact. He becomes a complete hedonist, with Mephisto as his servant as long as he lives. But after seducing countless women, Faust falls hopelessly in love with the virtuous Gretchen (Camilla Horn). Mephisto connives to destroy their love and win his bet with heaven in one fell swoop.
One of the first images in Faust is a masterpiece of stage design adapted to the cinema. Mephisto stands over the city, his dark cape forming a storm-like shroud. He looses the plague on the town in the form of a dark cloud. Over Mephisto's shoulder comes a blazing light from heaven, and the colossal monster raises his arms to shield his ugly, scowling face. The image should be familiar, because Walt Disney repeated it for his animated Fantasia fourteen years later. Another familiar image is a pair of pallid ghost riders, mounted on skeletal horses, riding through dark clouds.
Faust has plenty of stylized expressionist acting. The characters are dealing in cosmic conflicts, and the young Faust is a disillusioned idealist seeking a way to make amends for his selfish choices. The settings provide the psychological complexity; every new camera angle presents another distorted tableau resembling stage artwork rendered in 3-D. The aged Faust's alchemy lab glows with the light from a strange glass globe. In the fantasy Parma sequence, a crane shot dips down through several balconies as a Busby Berkeley-style procession of veiled dancers gyrate in the background. That's followed by Faust's entrance, posing as a Maharaja accompanied by a pair of giant white elephants. The effect is dreamlike, to say the least.
Against expectations, Faust tries out several changes of tone, including comedy. Using a half dozen different "faces", Emil Jannings screws himself into a baleful, irate ghoul and at a later point grins like a hungry cat. He's colossal horned monster hovering over the city, and then appears as a toad-like man in a robe. He looks squat and misshapen, like Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back. As Mephisto, he sometimes wears finery and sometimes not.
In the middle of Faust's ill-fated affair with Gretchen, Mephisto dashes about like a madman, making sure that the lovers' liaison ends in tragedy. He impishly wakes Gretchen's old mother (Frida Richard) and summons Gretchen's brother Valentin (future director William Dieterle) back from an inn. He also pretends to seduce the homely Aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert), making horrible (and funny) faces whenever the woman's face is turned. As The Devil is supposed to enjoy his impish tricks, all this works well in context.
More extreme sets and elaborate special effects power Faust's operatic finish. Mephisto finds that the flesh is weak but virtue can survive just the same; even in tragedy the power of Love prevails. The fate of the unjustly wronged Gretchen and the contrite Faust is both beautiful and unforgiving. What worked on stage is perfect raw material for filmic illusions, and Murnau's Faust is up to the challenge.
Kino's Restored Deluxe Edition of Faust represents what must be years of restoration work. The F.W. Murnau Stiftung people sifted through the holdings of a number of archives to sort out parallel versions of the film, made from multi-camera takes and alternate takes, originally assembled to provide all the printing negatives necessary to service the release world-wide. At that time, acceptable duping film stocks didn't exist so multiple versions had to be filmed. They also determined which negatives were the director-favored versions, with the best takes and most successful special effects.
A lengthy docu on the first disc, The Language of Shadows, gives us split-screen comparisons of the same scene as finished in different negatives, and shows takes that should have been rejected for a variety of goofs. It's fascinating. The docu also tells the entire story of the making of the film, illustrated with original concept artwork, interviews, stills and clips from other productions of the time.
Disc one holds the restored German master version of the film, viewable with a Mont Alto score (in 2.0 or 5.1) or a piano score by Perez de Azpeitia, adapted from an original 1926 arrangement. A second disc contains a complete copy of an American version with music by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. This version is actually ten minutes longer and was produced by David Shepard. Disc one, however, retains the original film's beautiful German artwork inter-titles (subtitled in English).
Other extras include a reel of screen tests for the part of Mephisto in an abandoned 1923 version of the story to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch, galleries of set designs and stills, notes on the Mont Alto score and an essay by historian Jan Christopher Horak.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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