by Allan Fish
(Germany 1926 116m) DVD2 (DVD1 export version only)
Aka. Faust: Eine Deutsche Volkssage
Go to a cross road and call upon him three times
p Erich Pommer d Friedrich W.Murnau w Hans Kyser books Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe ph Carl Hoffman ed Friedrich W.Murnau m Werner R.Heymann, Erno Rapee (Timothy Brock 1997/2006 restoration) art Robert Herith, Walter Röhrig cos Georges Annekov
Gösta Ekman (Faust), Emil Jannings (Mephistopheles), Camilla Horn (Gretchen), Yvette Guilbert (Marthe Schwertdlein), William Dieterle (Valentin, Gretchen’s brother), Frida Richard (Gretchen’s mother), Eric Barclay (Duke of Parma), Hanna Ralph (Duchess of Parma), Werner Fuetterer (Archangel),
At the time I write in 2006, we have become accustomed to, and somewhat take for granted, the sterling efforts of film restorers to bring the masterpieces of yore back to gleaming cinematic life, making them look arguably better than they did even on release. In 2006, however, a further step was taken that is unlikely to be repeated; up until that time the only version of Murnau’s silent masterpiece seen was commonly referred to as the ‘export version’, which was made up of takes which Murnau discarded from his perfectionist German print. Even in that almost second-hand form it was a near masterpiece, but the release in 2006 of that original, long thought lost German version, was more than a subject for rejoicing, it was almost a cinematic epiphany.
Murnau’s vision borrows heavily from various previous interpretations by Goethe, Marlowe and Gounod, and shows the fight between the forces of darkness, and those of light personified by an unnamed archangel. The Devil, Mephistopheles, wagers the archangel that, if he can turn the almost saintly old professor and theologian Faust to the dark side, as it were, the forces of light must surrender the Earth to the forces of darkness. Mephisto spreads a pestilent plague on Faust’s home town from which few are spared and, in his desperation to save his townsfolk, Faust makes a fateful decision.
Even now the film resonates with influential power. There has probably never been a film so influential to Walt Disney than this. The magnificently apocryphal opening sequence, ending with Mephisto casting his shadowy cape over the town, was mixed with sequences in Christensen’s Häxan to become the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia, while decades later, the sequence of Mephisto turning Faust into a royal emissary with elephants was directly copied in Aladdin. He also drew heavily on what can only be described as the perfect mixture of Gothic and expressionistic art in some truly stunning sets designed by those masters Röhrig and Herlth, whose best work this may well be. Even the model and trick work is stunning for its day and holds up remarkably well eighty years on. Murnau also shows his mastery of narrative strength, pulling you in from the very opening caption – “Behold, the portals of darkness are open, and the shadows of the dead hunt over the earth” – to the truly heartrending finale as hero and heroine are consumed by flames, and the original tale of faith and redemption becomes a critique of man’s inhumanity to man. Praise, too, for the cast; Ekman is touching as the tragic Faust, and Horn is quite indescribably lovely as the truly tragic Gretchen (and according to Brownlow’s Cinema Europe, she really suffered in her own equivalent of the Via Dolorosa sequence), whose ethereal beauty obviously influenced Murnau’s depiction of Janet Gaynor in the later Sunrise. Dominating all, though, is Jannings, in one of his truly most memorably insidious performances, as devilish a Satan as we have ever seen, almost praising himself when he cries out “no man can resist evil”, acting as censor to Faust’s lovemaking by bringing his colossal cape down over the bed, or simply plotting against any shred of true love. Note also the presence in the cast of a young William Dieterle, who would pay the ultimate complement by making his own masterful take on Faust fifteen years later (All That Money Can Buy), and they make so devilishly intoxicating a double bill as to make most directors sell their soul to make a film as good as either.