Production Studio: UFA
Blu-Ray Distributed By: Kino Classics (Kino Lorber)
Initial Release: Oct. 14, 1926 (Germany); Dec. 5, 1926 (US)
Blu-ray Release: November 17, 2015
Director: F. W. Murnau
Reviewed By James M. Dubs
I’ll watch anything…including Faust.
With every passing day I become increasingly grateful that independent distribution companies continue to release films that don’t have mass market appeal, but are important both artistically and historically.
Faust is one such film from Kino Lorber’s off-shoot label Kino Classics. Faust isn’t going to appeal to a wide American market because it has several things going against it…
- It’s a foreign film.
- It includes subtitles.
- It’s black and white.
- It’s a silent film.
Unfortunately, most people only watch a film like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari if they are enrolled in film school or happen to be film enthusiasts, like myself. So I’m hoping, just a little, that I can help persuade a handful of you to forget about the latest “buzz films” from Hollywood and take a step back to 1926 and experience a true film classic; F. W. Murnau’s Faust.
Faust begins with a wager between the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) and an Archangel over whether a man can be corrupted to turn his back on God and his faith, with the victor earning dominion over the Earth. The focus of the bet is an elderly alchemist named Faust (Gösta Ekman). Mephisto unleashes a devastating plague upon Faust’s village which the alchemist finds impossible to combat. After failing to help ailing villagers with his skills, Faust succumbs to despair, ultimately summoning the demon for assistance. Mephisto answer’s Faust’s call for aid and offers him eternal youth and the ability to cure the sick in exchange for his soul.
The film also stars Camilla Horn as Gretchen, an innocent girl who is charmed into loving Faust and pays a heavy toll for her choices and indiscretions.
Admittedly, even as a film enthusiast my natural inclination is to reach for anything before a silent, black and white, foreign film. We have a natural draw to the overly hyped, big budget films of today. But Faust is different than what you may expect. In fact, it was the big budget picture of its time and helped to revolutionize cinema. UFA Studios spared no expense during the production of Faust basically giving Murnau a blank check and all of the resources possibly available. Murnau used a two camera set up to increase coverage and shot multiple takes of every scene. He would not leave a shot until he felt it was perfect.
Faust was also shot with the intentions of being showcased in dual markets. Murnau shot many extra takes and scenes with English language inserts in preparation for both the German and American markets. Naturally this “double work” also drove up the costs. It’s not unlike the Star Wars films of today casting Asian looking actors and shooting alternate “unoffensive” takes to appeal to the Chinese market. Many of these practices and tactics, considered common today, were brand new in 1926 and ultimately burdened UFA Studios with a film that cost them roughly twice what they earned back. Fortunately, those expenses and the drive for perfection aren’t necessarily wasted, as Faust proves to be more engaging and elicit deeper emotional responses than most modern films.
Murnau commands this epic tale of Gods and monsters, and human corruption with such precision and skill that it’s reported he coached Camilla Horn’s performance as Gretchen to near hysteria. During one scene, Gretchen is so overcome with grief that she collapses into a chair and sobs uncontrollably. After the take she could not stop crying and when asked why she couldn’t calm down she reportedly responded that Murnau had given her so many powerful examples of sad things that it became overwhelming for her.
One of the most frightening shots in the film (and one of my personal favorites) occurs when Mephisto, towering over Faust’s village, extends his black wing across the sky and blocks out the sun from the village below. The demon’s shadow consumes the village rooftops as the plague takes hold and spreads rapidly. The shot conveys a claustrophobic and smothering sense of dread as the village descends into darkness and despair. This single shot conveys everything you need to experience without a single line of dialogue, and illustrates true filmmaking craft brought to perfection with cinematography, performance, and special effects.
And since we’re on the topic of special effects, I found myself in awe of the effects. In a world where modern movie audiences are used to seeing CGI characters and backgrounds, some of the optical film effects in Faust can seem quaint by comparison. The difference, however, is that under the masterful hand of someone like Murnau, the effects feel organic to the overall fantasy of the film. Under Murnau’s direction, they use nearly every trick. Small scale miniatures were constructed to create grand shots of Faust and Mephisto flying over villages, mountains, and oceans. Optical effects were used to create ghostly apparitions. And because I tend to love horror movies, I’m particularly fond of a lighting trick creating the illusions of Mephisto’s eyes glowing when he first appears before Faust.
Up to this point I’ve described a pretty bleak film concerning corruption, demons, and sin. However, Murnau is such a craftsman, he understands the necessity to create levity in his script to balance the darkness. There are some very comical moments, especially concerning Mephisto. At one point in the film Mephisto is helping Faust meet Gretchen and must distract Gretchen’s mother. Mephisto does so with a bit of humorous flirtation that involves witty dialogue and comedic performance, highlighting both strong acting and a great script. It’s a fun and light exchange, in an otherwise diabolical plot, that breaks up the seriousness just long enough to give the audience a break.
The next time you need to take break, and you crave a perfect film, Faust is as perfect as films come. The script and story is incredibly engaging. The special effects are inspiring. The cinematography is captivating. The performances are moving and emotional. There are thrilling action scenes, moments of joy and love, and heartbreaking losses. Despite the lack of audible dialogue or visual color, this film is pretty much picture perfect.
Video & Audio Rating:
Kino Classics markets this Faust blu-ray as a “meticulous restoration of the original German release version” which is largely true. For a film dated back to 1926, the blu-ray performs marvelously. Constructed from multiple, and the best, sources availble, the blu-ray offers a considerable about of depth and clarity throughout much of the film. However, due to any number of circumstances from available material to limitations during the actual production in 1926, the product is not perfect or without scratches, blemishes, and other film anomalies. But all of this is easily acceptable due to the films age, the time era it was produced, and the strength and complexity of the narrative itself.
The blu-ray disc offers viewers a choice between a piano adaptation of Paul Hensel’s 1926 orchestral arrangement performed by Javier Perez de Azpeitia, or an orchestral score performed by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Both tracks are rendered for a 2.0 stereo output on your home system and perform adequately. Scholars and students will want to consume both just to compare how the slightest change in music can have dramatic effects in the films overall tone, mood, and atmosphere.
The only thing missing is an audio commentary track. For historically relevant films its almost a cliche to have a monotone film scholar droning on about the legacy of the film on display. These commentaries tend to be a little tedious and boring, but I’ve come to appreciate them very much. Alas, Faust does not have this little extra which prevents me from giving it a perfect rating. However, the set does come with three extraordinary bonuses.
- The Language of Shadows: Faust, a 53 minute documentary by Luciano Berriatua on the making and restoration of Murnau’s film.
- Test footage of Ernst Lubitsch’s abandoned production Marguerite and Faust, preserved by the Library of Congress.
- Bonus DVD featuring the alternate 1930 cut of Faust. Original score by Timothy Brock, performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.
I know most of you are not going to rush out and buy Faust, but I’m going to request that you reconsider. Kino Classics continues to blow me away with their historical film releases and Faust is among the best that they offer. Some additional and notable Kino titles include Pioneers of African American Cinema, Metropolis, The Birth of a Nation, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, just to name a handful of my favorites.
And for those of you that want to support the arts, may I suggest doing something more worthwhile than wearing a stupid pussy hat? Head over to the Kino Kickstarter campaign and donate to produce the next great release: Pioneers of First Women Filmmakers.