Faust Review

The legend of the sixteenth century magician and alchemist Dr. Johann Georg Faust and the pact he made with the devil is an old one stretching back even past Goethe and Marlowe, with its roots in ancient German folklore. Brought to the screen in 1926 by F.W. Murnau, the director of the dark and troubling Nosferatu, Faust’s gothic roots however make it ideal material for the dark, shadowy and angular treatment of German Expressionism.

As the earth is ravaged by war, famine and plague, heaven and earth wrestle with the ultimate fate of mankind – heaven putting its faith in the goodness of man, hell certain of its propensity for corruption. A wager is placed the outcome of which rests on the actions of one man, the great philosopher and scientist Dr. Faust, and whether he can resist the lure of evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) however, has become deeply disillusioned that his faith in knowledge and science are powerless to prevent the horror of the plague that is sweeping the land. In the process of destroying his vast library, one book reaches out and offers the only possible solution left open to him. On a moonlit crossroads therefore, he summons the devil, Mephisto (Emil Jannings), who offers him a pact. In return for renouncing God and his immortal soul, he will have power over all the earth for one day, to fulfil any personal desire. The power to put an end to the mounting deaths on the streets is too much for the man to resist, but additional promises and tantalising tastes of renewed youth, happiness and love tempt Faust to ever greater lengths.

Like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the other great UFA studios blockbuster of 1926, F.W. Murnau’s adaptation of the legend of Faust has no great depth to its morality tale message or subtlety in the manner of its portrayal. What was important for a financially-troubled film studio was that the stories in both films were sufficiently imaginative, exotic and dramatic in order to be commercially appealing to the largest possible domestic and foreign markets. What makes both these films so great and still so striking today is that they stretched the abilities and creativities of two of the world’s most imaginative and creative filmmakers, achieving work that would extend the boundaries of cinema itself. Murnau’s talent had already been noted by Hollywood, who had been impressed by his innovations in his 1924 film The Last Laugh. Faust would consequently be Murnau’s last film for UFA before his move to America and the creation of his silent masterpiece Sunrise.

Such is the power of Murnau’s talent and the German Expressionist techniques that the early special effects, make-up and photography in Faust still have an incomparable force. The use of light and shadow, angular sets and expressive acting combine here, as they do in Murnau’s Nosferatu, to create a visual poetry that touches on a deeper primeval fears and desires, raising the film far above the level of the often simplistic morality tale scenario of its script. Like Lang’s Metropolis, Faust has some of the most spectacular and iconic imagery ever put onto the screen, all conceptually adhering to the balance of light and shade that is set out at the very beginning of the film. in the struggle between heaven and earth Thus scenes of Mephisto’s dark magic, fire and brimstone, the disease and horror of the plague and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are set against the epic splendour of the palace of the Duchess of Parma and the enchantment and wonder of the youthful Faust’s love for the young woman Gretchen (Camilla Horn) – which even in itself has its shades of light and darkness. The techniques that bring this about reach a level of epic grandeur that remains impressive and deeply affecting to this day, with camera movements that predate Citizen Kane by 15 years. It’s not that the effects have the ability or ingenuity to impress – they are indeed often rather primitive – it’s the imaginativeness of their conception and execution that gives them, and the film, the conviction that the technology lacks.

Faust is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Collection – spine number #24. The DVD is not region encoded and is in PAL format. Two versions of Faust are presented in this 2-disc set. Disc 1 contains the original domestic version of the film, recently uncovered and restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. Disc 2 contains the international cut of the film which, although longer, was made from a second camera negative or lesser alternative takes, and was the only version of the film that has been available for the last 50 years. The set is beautifully packaged, with further stunning poster designs included on the inside of the sleeve. The booklet contains a superb essay by Peter Spooner on the history of the production, which is far more concise and accessible than either the commentary or the Rayns feature. A short piece by R. Dixon Smith also sheds some light on the many versions of the negatives and prints.

The video quality of the print taken from the newly discovered and fully restored domestic negative of the film is remarkable. It has clarity, detail and brightness that is not found in any previous cut of the film. It is still a little soft, a few sequences show excessive grain and some marks and damage are extant or beyond restoration, but they appear to be relatively minor and infrequent considering the age of the 70 year old film. The image is astonishingly stable and tones are excellent, with blacks in particular showing fine detail. The transfer is slightly window-boxed, partly I presume, to preserve the original aspect ratio. There are very few problems with the transfer to DVD, but there is a niggling and persistent problem with the spacing in the horizontal lines of resolution, which cause some jaggedness particularly in diagonals, and a little bit of aliasing. It’s probably caused by converting an NTSC source to PAL and attempting to increase the lines of resolution. It’s not that much of a problem and rarely noticeable on a standard display, but could be problematic on larger screens.

The export print, included on the second disc, is slightly darker and softer, lacking the detail and clarity of the domestic version, but it nonetheless also looks very well indeed, with scarcely any serious problems. Incidentally, the differences in the two films are considerable and are worth examining. They are not at all different in terms of the overall structure of scenes and storyline, but the pacing and lengths of scenes vary and there are often striking differences in the composition of famous shots – the domestic version certainly being the superior of the two.

The new domestic version of the film offers a choice of Timothy Brock’s orchestral score and a new harp score by Stan Ambrose. Both place an entirely different tone upon the film, but the orchestral score is perhaps more in keeping with the operatic and epic nature of the film. Both scores are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and, unsurprisingly, have no notable issues.

Optional English subtitles are included on disc one, which uses the original German intertitles of the domestic negative. The intertitles on disc 2’s international edition are in English, but subtitles are also provided for on-screen German text. In both cases, the subtitles are properly sized, white and easily readable.

Disc 1
Film critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn provide a full-length commentary for the new domestic print of the film, full of awe for the quality of the print and the detail revealed in Murnau’s remarkable compositions. The commentary is interesting up to a point, with lots of background information and critical opinion (Rohmer’s work on the film is taken as gospel), an examination of the influences – Rembrandt primarily – and the considerable influence the film itself has had on modern cinema (they also note the Citizen Kane references), but it does tend to get a bit film-geeky, with each of the commentators trying to outdo the other in dredging up the most obscure, arcane or pop-culture references.

Disc 2
A Comparison of the Domestic and Export Releases (26:48)
A featurette plays a number of scenes from the two versions of the film side-by-side, allowing the considerable differences to easily identified and examined. Each scene is preceded by text explaining the variation. This only touches on a few of the many differences, but this is nonetheless interesting and informative and provides guidance for anyone wanting to explore the numerous and very obvious other alternative takes.

Tony Rayns on Faust (37:51)
Describing the discovery of this version of Faust as “miraculous”, Rayns looks at the context of the making of the film in relation to the studio system of the period, the mythology of the subject and also provides some background information on Murnau and the historical context of Germany of the period. The noted Asian film critic displays a remarkably in-depth knowledge of early German silent cinema.

Tragically, a large number of the films of F.W. Murnau are lost and unlikely to ever be rediscovered, but the few that remain are undisputed masterpieces. Faust is certainly up there with Nosferatu and Sunrise, striking in its use of light and shade - both within the storyline and through its depiction on the screen – and taking it to an epic level. This is all the more evident in the newly discovered original German version of the film – a vastly superior cut than any other version of the film that has been seen up to now, particularly as it is presented here in fully restored and impressive quality by Masters of Cinema.

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