Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Faust (1926) - Directed by F.W. Murnau

Is Faust the grandest experiment ever conducted by F.W. Murnau? He literally throws everything at the viewer here in a film that is overshadowed historically by the film that he made following it in 1927, Sunrise. I recently watched Sunrise, for the third time, and am absolutely convinced that, yes it contains mostly brilliant cinema, but it also contains a few really sappy segments that play poorly melodramatic- not to Murnau’s strengths. I actually find City Girl (1930) to be a far more evenly paced film than Sunrise and manages to avoid some of the maudlin aspects that Sunrise falls into times. Murnau was not at his best playing up melodrama though. He was at his best highlighting the darker recesses of humanity and made his most technically interesting films while still in Germany. This was his last German film.

Faust is based on the Goethe play and stars Gosta Ekmann as Faust, an elderly alchemist, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth and earthly pleasures. Emil Jannings plays the demon Mephisto who escorts Faust around, and generally wreaks all kinds of havoc throughout the story through manipulation. Sex plays a large role in the film, as Faust is initially convinced to take a trial day under the Devil’s rule, but his day as a younger man is about to come to an end before he is able to fornicate with a woman he is wooing to bed. He is convinced to finalize the pact with the Devil therefore in order to keep his “date”. Later in the film, Faust is smitten by a young woman named Gretchen. His temptation to couple with Gretchen becomes not only his downfall, but also that of Gretchen and her family.

I think anyone familiar with the Faust story will not be surprised or particularly excited by the plot mechanics. For me the excitement of the film is in the presentation which is wildly chaotic and absolute fun. Several setpieces and images are quite memorable. From the image of the Devil and his hulking presence towering over the miniature town, to the sequence where Faust is out in the countryside calling the demon Mephisto to come to his side and out of the blackness, the overlaid imagery of Mephisto riding a horse comes closer and closer out of the sky. One of the most striking sequences is toward the end when Gretchen is trudging through the snow with her baby and out of sheer exhaustion plops herself down in the snow. Her scream for “Faust!” after they’ve found her baby dead in the snow is also an example of visual storytelling at its finest in the silent era. Using overlaid imagery, special effects, tracking shots, unique setpieces, Murnau reaches his pinnacle of inventiveness I believe here in this film.

So let’s talk about Emil Jannings who is magnificent as Mephisto. His performance just downright dominates the film and he in general puts most actors from this era to shame. His expressions are what I take away from this film, especially his evil smile. I wonder though, if the performance is a bit more caricatured than say, something like The Doorman from The Last Laugh, which might be his best work of all. There, he is able to express a greater range of emotion. Here, it’s almost like a glorious, extended cameo appearance of sorts, where he gets to have all of the fun and doesn’t have to carry the emotion. As for Murnau, I’ve found that the films I enjoy the best are the ones he made in Germany. The Last Laugh and Faust especially are wonderful, kinetic examples of his craft. When he went to Hollywood, something for me was not quite the same. Many people consider Sunrise the greatest silent film of all time though, so maybe it’s just me. 


Sam Juliano said...

Jon, you can count me among those who consider SUNRISE as Murnau's greatest film, and one of the greatest films of all-time, but I have no problem at all at what you say here about CITY GIRL nor about FAUST, the director's last German film. Even in a career that includes some of the greatest films ever made (SUNRISE, THE LAST LAUGH, NOSFERATU) this audacious work has earned the admiration of those who prefer this side of the director's creativity. Certainly, the opening sequence is one of the most startling in all of cinema with the camera swirling in baroque mode. It could well be argued with some persuasiveness that Margurite is insipid and Faust himself too effeminate, and the Princess's ball is like a German music hall in the 20's, but these issues are easily avalanched by the presence and work of the great Jannings, and a definitive incarnation of the expressionist style that Murnau never allowed to flourish quite the same way in his subsequent work, even with the obvious indeptedness of his later American work. Last year I was treated to the Metropolitan opera production of Gounod's extraordinary work, and again was able to explore the story from another artistic angle.

You have again peeled the gauze off a great classic with the preciseness of a gifted surgeon.

Jon said...

Thanks again as usual Sam for your thoughtful comments. I do recognize that the majority of folks side with Sunrise being the best of Murnau and one of the pinnacles of cinema. I think it's just my personal leanings these days tend to side with the extravagant expressionism of his earlier stuff. By any standards, most of his films are far and away rather exceptional works. I'm splitting hairs here.