Faust (1926)


The latest restoration of a German silent classic is F.W. Murnau’s lavishly mounted version of the Goethe tale, starring Emil Jannings as Mephisto. It’s an impressive drama but also has a sense of (Teutonic) humor here and there. Most every shot is a fantastic visuals, and the bigger scenes use visual designs worthy of fine art.

Blu-ray + DVD
Kino Classics
1926 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 106, 116 min / Street Date November 17, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.96
Starring Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, Frida Richard, William Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert, Eric Barclay, Hanna Ralph, Werner Fuetterer.
Carl Hoffman
Production Design Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig
Film Editor Elfi Böttrich
Written by Gerhart Hauptmann, Hans Kyser from plays by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Christopher Marlowe
Produced by Erich Pommer
Directed by F.W. Murnau

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Back in film school, lecturers on cinema art of the 1920s claimed that Germany had an edge over Hollywood. They must have been talking about F.W. Murnau’s Faust, which for 1926 is a powerhouse of great storytelling, performances and lavishly expressive visuals.

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 represent the snooty taste of an elitist showman, it chooses Faust. This 1926 Erich Pommer production is considered by some to be the apex of German Expressionistic cinema. It’s no fossil, but a living drama with plenty of connection to modern audiences. Today’s comic book movies can’t match an opening that depicts an encounter between Absolute Evil and Absolute Goodness. Titanic figures over an Italian landscape from the middle ages, debating Man’s freedom to choose one over the other.

For years now Kino Video has been quietly issuing sensational 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. Back in film school, we squinted through the shabby, incomplete 16mm prints then available. They could never compare with the quality stills reproduced in cinema books. These Kino discs allow us to turn the clock back to Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Now promoted to Blu-ray, Faust is as big of an eye opener as any of them.

We’re told that after the international success of Murnau’s The Last Laugh the acclaimed director was given carte blanche for his next production. Using all the resources of the mighty Ufa studios, he constructed dozens of expressionistic sets and tested elaborate, innovative special effects. As the film was to be marketed internationally, the actors were international as well. German Emil Jannings had performed the play on stage. Swede Gösta Ekman plays 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 in many guises. The play and movie musical Damn Yankees, for instance, follows the pattern of this version fairly closely. The Devil, Mephisto (Emil Jannings) wagers with a heavenly Archangel (Werner Futterer) that he can corrupt Faust (Gösta Ekman), a good and moral 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. The citizens reject the miracle cures when it becomes clear that Faust’s power is Satanic. Mephisto then offers to restore his client’s youth and to help him 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 constant servant. 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. In colossal form, Mephisto towers over the city, his dark cape forming a storm-like shadow. He looses the plague in the shape of a dark cloud. When the angel casts a blazing light from heaven in his direction, Mephisto cringes and raises his arms to shield his ugly, scowling face. The image should be familiar, because Walt Disney borrowed it fourteen years later for his animated Night on Bald Mountain for Fantasia. Another familiar image is a trio of pallid ghost riders riding through fiery clouds on skeletal horses. The impressive visual appears to have been achieved with puppets.

Faust features plenty of stylized expressionist acting. The drama is a cosmic conflict, 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 depth. 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 gyrates in the background. That’s followed by Faust’s entrance, posing as a Maharaja. He’s accompanied by a pair of giant white elephants, elaborate stage creations that almost seem real. The effect is dreamlike, to say the least.

Against expectations, Faust shifts between several changes of tone, including comedy. Emil Jannings’ Mephisto appears in a half dozen different guises. His horned monster hovers menacingly over the city. He sometimes wears elegant finery and at other times is a squat and misshapen toad-like man in a robe, like Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back. He grins like a hungry cat, and screws his face tight to become a baleful, irate ghoul.

When Faust undertakes his ill-fated affair with Gretchen, Mephisto dashes about like a madman to ensure 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. When he pretends to seduce the homely Aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert), Mephisto makes horrible (and funny) faces whenever the woman’s face is turned. The Devil knows well how to enjoy his impish tricks.

More extreme sets and elaborate special effects power Faust’s operatic finish as Gretchen is sentenced to burn at the stake. Mephisto finds that the flesh is weak, but that virtue can prevail if given enough hope. Even in tragedy the power of Love wins out. 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.

The Kino Classics Blu-ray + DVD of Faust appears to be the same excellent restoration from 2009, now in HD. The F.W. Murnau Stiftung people constructed their full-length copy by combining the holdings of archives in four countries, sorting out parallel versions of the film. Acceptable duping film stocks didn’t exist in 1926, so multiple takes of each scene had been filmed to provide enough printing negatives to service the release world-wide. The restoration experts determined which negatives were the director-favored versions, with the best performances and most successful special effects.

The lengthy docu The Language of Shadows gives us split-screen comparisons of the same scene as finished in different negatives. It’s fascinating — we’re shown takes that should have been rejected for a variety of goofs. 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.

The Blu-ray holds the restored German master version of the film, viewable with a Mont Alto orchestral score (in 2.0 or 5.1) or a piano score by Perez de Azpeitia, adapted from an original 1926 arrangement. A second DVD disc contains a complete copy of an American version with music by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. Produced by David Shepard, this version is actually ten minutes longer. Only the Blu-ray version retains the beautiful original German artwork inter-titles (subtitled in English).

Other extras include a reel of screen tests for the role of Mephisto in an abandoned 1923 Mary Pickford version, set to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Faust Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Three music scores (see above); The Language of Shadows: Faust, a 53-minute documentary on the making of the film and its subsequent restoration; screen test footage of Ernst Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production Marguerite and Faust.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (below original German inter-titles)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD in keep case
Reviewed: December 31, 2015 — Happy New Year

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