Blu-ray: F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’

Faust (Kino Classics, Blu-ray+DVD), the final German production by director F.W. Murnau before he left for Hollywood, remains one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. The new Blu-ray reminds us just how beautiful, adventurous, and powerful it is after all these years.

Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Siegfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil.

Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.

Yet it’s the most breathtakingly beautiful of Murnau’s German films, a tragedy drawn in epic images like paintings in light and shadow on a scale that spans the world. The imagery of Mephisto and the Archangel is operatic and grandiose, yet delicately textured and intricately lit. Lucifer takes Faust on a magic carpet ride around the world, looking down on jagged mountainscapes and fairy-tale kingdoms of opulence and decadence in a spectacle of expressionistically exaggerated miniatures and trick photography. An innocent staked to a pyre to burn for her sins becomes a scene of transcendence, at once harrowing and spiritual. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Gretchen, abandoned by her lover and rejected by the pious townspeople for her sins, crawls pathetically through the snow while clutching her infant, gripped in a hallucination of sanctuary in the storm with tragic consequences. The townsfolk may not be big on charity, but they are very quick to capture and punish the wicked. The Devil couldn’t have orchestrated her torture better… and in fact, the Devil did.

The film ostensibly takes the position of man’s essential goodness in the face of temptation in the debate between the Archangel and Mephisto, but as the drama plays out, Murnau seems to favor the Devil’s position. When the death and doom of the plague first descends on Faust’s village, the citizens slip into a bacchanal and turns their little town into a Sodom. The so-called Christians pass judgment on Faust and Gretchen with such intolerance and lack of compassion that they close their doors and their charity on the victimized Gretchen as she suffers and starves with a dying infant. How easy it is for Mephisto to tap into the greed and lust of man, Murnau seems to be saying, to dig beneath pious poses of religious morality and reveal a vicious vindictiveness. A final act of sacrifice may save the souls of our tortured sinners (and what a stunning scene it is), but it seems to me that Faust lost his wager only because they never took into account the actions of the rest of humanity, only this one seduced soul.

Murnau shot separate negatives for different territories: seven distinct versions are known to exist, each composed of different takes (some barely noticeable, others marked by different framing and editing choices, still others put together with outtakes and otherwise discarded takes). According to historian Luciano Berriatua, who also supervised this restoration, this was a rare instance where the American cut was actually Murnau’s definitive version. Murnau saw his future in Hollywood (where he would make his next film, Sunrise) and, after editing his German version, took the negatives to the U.S. to personally prepare the American version of the film. That German cut was re-edited in his absence and subsequently lost. Kino previously released a version from the Ufa vaults that was prepared in 1930 from the Danish masters. This newly remastered version is a reconstruction of his original German cut using the materials from the American version (with supplementary footage from other negatives and surviving prints where necessary) and the intertitle cards that Murnau had originally prepared for the German version (but were subsequently discarded by producer Hand Neumann). The hand-painted cards feature text over an abstract background of bold black strokes on a white background that suggests a stormy struggle between the forces of dark and light.

The quality is astounding, a beautiful print with rich tones and clear images and the finest the film has ever looked (at least in the past seventy years or so). The new restoration also features two scores—a compilation score of “historic photoplay music” by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (recorded in 5.1 Stereo Surround) and a piano score adapted from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement—and the 53-minute documentary The Language of Shadows: Faust by Luciano Berriatua (which compares many of the different versions and reveals many of the outtakes used in alternate negatives), lost screen test footage of Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production “Marguerite and Faust” and galleries of set designs and stills.

Also features a bonus DVD with the previously released 1930 Ufa version of the film, produced for DVD by David Shepard and featuring a moody orchestral score by Timothy Brock performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.

Camilla Horn as Gretchen

‘Faust’ on TCM

My feature review of/historical essay on F.W. Murnau’s Faust and Kino’s new DVD release is now up at Turner Classic Movies.

Emil Jannings at the devil in Faust
Emil Jannings as Mephisto in Faust

Murnau’s Faust, scripted by Carl Mayer and subtitled “A German Folk Saga,” reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil, with Faust as a kind of modern day Job. Mephisto (Emil Jannings, as a hulking bestial being with massive gargoyle wings) and the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Seigfried with feathery wings that tower over him) debate the goodness of mankind in an abstract celestial setting, where shafts of light breath through storm clouds like the dawn coming through the dark night. “I’ll wager that I can wrest Faust’s soul from God!” he bets the Archangel, who accepts (confident of mankind’s goodness and, apparently, unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure). Mephisto emerges over a picaresque mountain village, a looming monster who hovers over the innocent town like a storm of evil, his cloak smothering it in darkness while spreading noxious fumes that carry the plague. The image is astounding, a vision of darkness and pestilence personified and an image of pure visual power.

Read the complete essay here. I also wrote about Faust and the new Murnau box set from Kino on Parallax View here.

DVDs for 3/17/09 – Murnau, Shimizu, ‘Elegy’ and more

Last week, there was a plethora of New Releases fighting for attention. This week, the attention belongs to just a few impressive pieces, including two trememdous box sets: one in tribute to one of the most acclaimed directors of the silent era (or any era, for that matter), one to celebrate a neglected Japanese director.

The Haunted Castle
The Haunted Castle

Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Made before Nosferatu, The Haunted Castle (1921) is not a horror film or a ghost story but a psychological drama and murder mystery set in a magnificent country manor. Murnau shows real skill building the story in clever crosscutting while maintaining dramatic tension and an ominous mood. The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) couldn’t be more different, a lighthearted espionage thriller scripted by Thea von Harbou that feels more like a Lubitsch lark than the dark expressionism that Murnau specializes in. And Faust, Murnau’s final German film before he left for Hollywood, is one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. His reimagining of the Faust myth as a holy battle between good and evil is full of magnificent visual effects (Emil Jannings’ Lucifer envelops a mountain town in his dark cloak of plague) and gorgeous images created in the play of light, shadow, and mist on his beautifully designed sets. This new reconstruction and restoration is the most beautiful it has looked since, surely, its original release, and it is now the definitive version of this essential silent masterpiece.

I go into detail on every film at Parallax View  here.

Look up Hiroshi Shimizu on the IMDb and you’ll find 42 films made between 1924 and 1957 listed under his name. According Michael Koresky in the liner notes to the box set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (the 15th set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded label), he made over 150 films. That’s a lot of films for a director largely forgotten to time, even in Japan, but it isn’t the number of films that’s most alarming about his neglect. It’s the deftness and stylistic joys, the humor and humanity, the unexpected rhythms and a delightful stories on display in this set of four features. The silent film Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) is a lovely character piece about best friends who follow very different life paths, marked by evocative, startlingly modern direction Mr. Thank You (1936) is a buoyant road movie set on a bus ride through mountain roads with a cross-section of travelers whose stories spell out the desperation of Japan’s depression. The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) are both set in mountain resorts in the lazy atmosphere of summer vacation, both full of lovely rhythms and a meandering pace that favors personality and character of plot and defined by a melancholy tone of impermanence. The title Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly evocative of the films, not simply because they are about characters in transition but because Shimizu is as much travel guide as storyteller, taking us on a tour of people and places and the stories of their lives.

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