Shot in the UFA studios with a big movie star in the lead and all the special effects and production design resources any blockbuster of its time could wish for, FW Murnau's 1926 Faust
represents a step up from his better-known Nosferatu
. Oddly, Faust
is a less familiar film than the vampire quickie and this release affords fans a chance to see what Murnau can do with an equally major fantasy story. Adapted neither from Marlowe's play Dr Faustus
nor Goethe's verse drama, the script scrambles various elements of the legend and presents a Faust (Gosta Ekman) driven to summon the Devil by despair as a plague rages through the town, desperate to gain enough learning to help his neighbours. When this deal doesn't quite work out, because he is stoned by townsfolk who notice his sudden fear of the cross, Mephisto (Emil Jannings) offers Faust instead renewed youth and an opportunity to seduce a famously beautiful Italian noblewoman and then to return to his home village and get involved with the pure Gretchen (Camilla Horn). Like most versions of the story, it's episodic and some sections are stronger than others: the great stuff comes in the plague and initial deal sequences, though it picks up again for the tragic climax as Gretchen becomes the central figure and suffers horribly, freezing in the snows and burning at the stake. Jannings' devil, a gruesomely humorous slice of ham, is one of the great silent monster performances, reducing everyone else to a stick figure, and Murnau faces the challenge of topping his Nosferatu
imagery by deploying a battalion of effects techniques to depict the many magical journeys, sudden appearances and transformations.
On the DVD: Often seen in ragged, incomplete prints projected at the wrong speed, this is a decently restored version, running a full 115 minutes with a complete orchestral score. The original materials show some of the damage to be expected in a film of its vintage, but the transfer is excellent, displaying the imaginative art direction and camerawork to superb advantage. Aside from a nicely eerie menu, the sole extra is a full-length commentary originating in Australia: written by historian Peter Spooner but read by narrator Russell Cawthorne (who mispronounces the odd name). This provides an interesting wealth of background detail, such as Murnau's attempt to cast Hollywood's Lillian Gish as Gretchen, and delivers a balanced assessment of the film itself. --Kim Newman
Murnau's last German film features astonishing photography, magnificent art direction, and special effects which retain the power to amaze. Freed from the constraints of psychological narrative, Murnau's mastery of cinematic technique places Faust at the pinnacle of the silent era, its barrage of visceral and apocryphal imagery contrasting with the simplicity and directness of its spiritual theme.
In collaboration with the screenwriter Hans Kyser, Murnau fused Faust's script from German folk legend and the works of Goethe, Gounod, and Marlowe (particularly using the latter's tone). Faust's tale is a classic one of a man who sells his soul to the devil. In an attempt to gain control of the Earth, Mephisto (Emil Jannings) wagers an angel (Werner Fuetterer) that he can corrupt the soul of the elderly professor Faust (Gosta Ekman). As the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride demonically through the sky, Mephisto towers over Faust's hometown unleashing a plague that spreads amongst its inhabitants. Faust, unable to find a cure for the citizens who are dropping dead around him, renounces both God and science invoking the aid of Satan through a mysterious book that he chances across.