Faust (Cert PG)
3 Discs DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 107 minutes approx.
If there is ever a caveat for an artist with an impressive body of work it is that some milestone works are often overlooked in favour of more popular or readily referenced ones. For celebrated German director F.W Murnau it is fair to say that his telling of the Faust legend is his ignored gem.
There is no real reason why this should be as this 1926 opus, up until that point the most expensive German film ever made, stands up to scrutiny as much as Murnau’s more famous works. However much like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis there have been numerous versions of Faust in existence largely due to Murnau releasing a “domestic” version and an “export” version for English speaking distribution.
As the film later entered into the public domain, the “export” version was used and abused by cheap video companies while the “domestic” version was thought lost. This Blu-ray release from Eureka brings us the original “domestic” version to our attention for the first time. Running some eight minutes shorter than the “export” version, it shows Murnau’s original vision for this adaptation of the German folklore tale with tighter editing, different shots used and references changed international audiences restored to their original German.
Using the famed text of Johan von Wolfgang von Goethe as its basis the story tells how a devout and learned alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekmann) is corrupted by the Devil Mephisto (Emil Jannings) after a wager with an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) with the winner getting the earth. After an initial twenty four hour deal Mephisto gives Faust his youth back – in exchange for his soul. Faust falls for the virginal Gretchen (Camilla Horn) and uses Mephisto’s help to woo her but as ever the devil can’t be trusted and he has a wager to win.
While Murnau had created the first true horror masterpiece in Nosferatu in 1922 and go on to innovate filming and camera techniques with such dramatic fare as Tartuffe and The Last Laugh it wasn’t until this – his last German made film – that he truly explored the power of visual effects. With the success of The Last Laugh the studio UFA afforded Murnau what was then the highest budget ever for a film, 2 million Deutschmarks, and it is all there on the screen.
By today’s standards and for those weaned on CGI the effects will look primitive, fundamental and cheap but in fact they are groundbreaking, original and very effective. From simple scratching on the film to model work and practical tricks like fire and smoke aided by some innovative camerawork, there is much to admire about Murnau’s efforts and it is soon realised how much of a debt all filmmakers who followed in his path owe him.
One scene in which Faust is whisked away on a cloud by Mephisto is shot from their point of view, the camera gliding high above a village model while sharing the flight path of some very dangerous looking birds, thick clouds and other nocturnal obstacles; it may be basic in execution but is simply breathtaking to watch. Another clever moment sees the contract Mephisto offers Faust is written on the parchment in fire in a shot that took a whole day to film.
The story is your basic “good vs evil” clash based during a time when religious beliefs were much stronger so the question of submitting one’s self to the side of the devil would have a much deeper resonance and repercussions. Faust only agrees to the deal after his medicine fails to heal the sick people of a plague (which Mephisto started!) and the promise of aid from the dark side was too good an offer to refuse.
Faust didn’t care for his own well being if it saved the lives of others but in the second half when he falls for Gretchen, the truth behind his pact with Mephisto is finally brought home to home. The fate of poor Gretchen is particularly hard to watch due to the moral outrage of the villagers and doesn’t paint a particularly positive picture of the Christian faith practically handing the wager to Mephisto.
It has to be said that Faust does unfortunately suffer from some pacing issues, starting with a slow first act and then dragging in the late second act with too much time devoted to the admittedly superb comic antics of Mephisto toying with the affections of Gretchen’s aunt (Yvette Guilbert). But Murnau makes up for it with the visually superb fantasy elements and a dramatic, tense and emotionally fraught finale.
As ever Murnau chose wisely with his cast especially the mighty Emil Jannings who as ever towers over everyone as the antagonist Mephisto. He takes on many guises during the film and is delightfully devilish in all of them, even the comic moments. His original form is his most frightening and the lighting used creates a vision that is the stuff of nightmares. Janning’s bulky frame and expressive facials set the template for future demonic portrayals, camp or serious.
Renowned Swedish actor Gösta Ekmann also gets to adopt two differing versions of Faust, from the elderly scholar to the dashing young heartthrob. One would certainly not have recognised the same actor after he sheds the thick beard, long white hair and prosthetics as the old Faust, the illusion completed by the astute physical performances too.
Legend has it that Murnau first offered the role of Gretchen to the mercurial Hollywood icon Lillian Gish but her condition to have her own camera man wasn’t met and young bit part actress Camilla Horn was given the role instead and a find job she does too, imbuing the chaste qualities required while holding her own in the dramatic final act.
Hopefully this reissue will open many new eyes to this “forgotten work” of Murnau’s and that Faust is recognised for its many innovations and cinematic power as much as the other seminal entries in Murnau’s catalogue.
New 1080p presentation in original 1:33:1 aspect ratio
Orchestral Scores by Timothy Brock, Stan Ambrose and Javier Pérez de Azpetia (Blu-ray only)
Original German intertitles with English Subtitles
Audio commentary by David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn
The Complete Export Version of Faust
The Language Of the Shadows – 53 minute documentary (Blu-Ray only)
Video Piece with critic Tony Rayns
Rating – ****
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