Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Silent Horrors: Faust (1926)

In Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s play Faust, a scientist who becomes frustrated with the limits of learning and knowledge sells his soul to The Devil in order to overcome these barriers—the price being that once Faust reaches the zenith of human happiness, he will forfeit said soul (Faust agrees to this, believing it will never happen). The first part of Von Goethe’s play focuses on the tempestuous relationship between a striking young woman named Gretchen and the doomed Faust; a dalliance that ends in the destruction of the girl and her family, and which leaves Faust in bitter shame. In Part Deux, Faust and the Devil (his close friends call him Mephistopheles) journey through the worlds of politics and the classical gods, allowing Faust to come into contact with the ravishing Helen of Troy (considered the personification of beauty). The outcome of this excursion provides the protagonist with the moment of happiness that will damn his soul to eternity—but when Mephistopheles attempts to claim his prize he is stopped by God at the last minute, who rewards the scientist because of his relentlessly striving nature for knowledge. (And, of course, proving that the Devil is not the clever little sod he thinks he is.)

Von Goethe’s play was based on an ancient German legend that has been adapted and borrowed by many authors and artists, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Mann, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, etc., and the actual play itself was filmed in 1926 by the great silent movie director F.W. Murnau as Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage. Murnau’s work—adapted by Hans Kyser and Gerhard Hauptmann—eliminates the play’s second act, and focuses the proceedings on Faust’s obsession with youth rather than book larnin’. Gösta Ekman plays both young and old Faust, with Camilla Horn (in a role that director Murnau originally requested Lillian Gish to play) as Gretchen, and Murnau favorite Emil Jannings as Beelzebub himself. I watched this movie this morning and while it’s not quite in the same league as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), it’s very-well made and a testament to Murnau’s skill as a filmmaker—a master whose tragic death in 1931 from an automobile robbed us of his singular talents much too soon.

With the success of his productions Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and Der letzte Mann (1924), Murnau was given carte blanche by the UFA Studios to really pull out all the stops on Faust and direct a film that bristles with creative energy. His use of elaborate miniatures, expressionist cinematography and wondrous (pre-CGI) special effects makes Faust a virtual feast for the eyes, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere where the inhabitants of Faust’s village are trapped in the mire of both religious fanaticism and pagan rituals (I love the funeral processional scenes, with their black-hooded pallbearers); where the dehabilitating plague is explained as “the work of the Devil.” In fact, the only feature of this movie that keeps it from achieving total greatness is that its narrative sometimes gets a smidge muddled; plus, I find the scenes involving Gretchen’s courtship with Faust a little aggravating because Jennings’ Devil is forced to interact with Gretchen’s aunt (Yvette Gilbert) in a few vignettes that make his otherwise fearsome character a clownish buffoon (he lost a bit of his overall effectiveness with me after that).

Faust also casts an actor billed as Wilhelm Dieterle in the role of Gretchen’s brother Valentin—later in his career, Dieterle would go by “William” and become the highly respected director of such films as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Dr. Socrates (1935), The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and…wait for itAll That Money Can Buy (1941)—better known as The Devil and Daniel Webster, a variation on the Faust legend based on the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet. (The hat with the feather-in-it worn by Walter Huston’s “Mr. Scratch” bears a striking similarity to that of Jannings’ plume-adorned millinery, so maybe Dieterle was taking notes.)

Faust was released on DVD by Kino Video in 2001, and one of the disc’s major benefits is the first-rate score composed by Timothy Brock and performed by The Olympia Chamber Orchestra. Included with the DVD is an interesting essay on the film by film historian Jan Christopher Horan and a photo gallery feature entitled UFA Studios 1925: The Making of Faust which contains some rare production stills. Catch this one when you get the opportunity.

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