Faust

Gösta Ekman as Faust

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

28 August

 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe born, 1749

On this day in 1749, the writer, philosopher and German statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, in Frankfurt am Main, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire, to a local lawyer and the daughter of the city’s mayor. Home-schooled, Goethe learned a variety of languages, the liberal arts and the social niceties (dancing, riding, fencing). He went on to study law, but was writing copiously on the side, often love poetry to one of the various women he fell for. Falling under the influence of Johann Gottfried Herder after he relocated to Alsace, Goethe became fascinated with Shakespeare. In 1775 he published The Sorrows of Young Werther, a literary sensation in the Sturm and Drang genre which made him internationally famous. He became a member of the Duke of Weimar’s privy council, wrote a ground-breaking scientific work called The Metamorphosis of Plants, which pre-figured aspects of evolution, took part in a battle against revolutionary France and became a theatre director at Weimar. In 1808 he published his most famous work, Faust Part 1, following it two years later with his Theory of Colours, which influenced Schopenhauer and JMW Turner. Also fascinated by linguistics and mineralogy, he has a mineral (goethite) named after him.

 

 

 

Faust (1926, dir: FW Murnau)

It is one of the great oddnesses of people who watch films for a living that they insist that other people should be interested in silent movies. Most people are not interested in silent film, and on the whole they’re right not to be. But perhaps an exception could be made for a few of the great auteurs. FW Murnau is one such. Personally, I don’t think his Sunrise stands up that well to a modern viewing, historically important though it is. But Nosferatu does, and so does Faust, for broadly similar reasons. They show Murnau abandoning realism and concentrating on evoking emotion – fear in the former and awe in the latter, which he does with a skill that in some respects has yet to be equalled.
Faust sticks passably close to Goethe’s original story, telling the story of a learned old man (Gösta Ekman) bewitched by the beauty of the young innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn) and begging the devil Mephisto (Emil Jannings) to make him young again, in return for which the scholar will surrender his soul. All this while outside plague is raging, people are dying, the world is going to hell in a handcart. But not Faust. Now young again he entirely forgets his former concerns with healing the sick and finding a cure for the sickness, preferring to yield to physical pleasure, love, hedonism and all the rest of it.
So much for the plot. But look at how Murnau dresses it. This is his legacy. And as various critics have already pointed out, Murnau wasn’t making an arthouse movie for a select set. He was taking an already well known story and telling it with all the cinematic bells and whistles he had at his disposal – this is blockbuster cinema, 1920s style.
Take the scene where the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride through the sky. Or where Mephisto and St Michael are arguing about the moral weakness of the human species. Or minutes later the majestic sequence when Mephisto appears and hovers gigantically over a small German hamlet. Forget realism, this is high style, a kind of gothic expressionism. Later scenes, where Faust flies on Mephisto’s cloak, perhaps work less well, because a sort of realism is Murnau’s aim, and there’s no way that trees made of cotton wool are going to pass 21st century muster. But when we’re in the realm of smoke and fog (which could be the film’s subtitle) and Carl Hoffman’s majestic cinematography, all extreme blacks and stark whites, crazily tilting roofs, perspectives twisted way beyond the possible, the imagination can run wild.
As with the modern Hollywood blockbuster, none of this sort of special effects trickery and “look at this” showmanship is worth a hill of beans if there isn’t a love story at the centre of it. And though it’s true that the relationship of Faust and Gretchen can’t quite match that of Faust and Mephisto for screen power – the love stuff drags in the middle section, to be honest – Murnau brings it all to a terrible, heart-rending conclusion by the end, when the Mephistophelean chickens come home to roost for Faust, and more tragically for Gretchen, who is surely an innocent in all this.
A triumph of story-telling, of special effects, of German expressionism and of sheer theatrical bravado, Faust was the most expensive film ever made in Germany. It’s old, certainly, but watching it takes only a minute or two of adjustment and you’re transported, as if on Mephisto’s cloak, from the world of Michael Bay to the universe of FW Murnau.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the great films, silent or otherwise
  • Carl Hoffman’s amazing cinematography
  • Emil Jannings as a superbly malevolent Mephisto
  • Murnau’s often in-camera special effects

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Faust – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Nosferatu

Max Schreck as Nosferatu

Murnau’s 1922 silent expressionist classic is one of defining moments in movie-making. It borrowed its story wholesale from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, gave it the lightest of resprays and hoped no one would notice the theft. Bram Stoker’s widow noticed and sued for breach of copyright, won the case and had all the prints of Nosferatu destroyed. But the film refused to die, and rose from the undead.

Its star, who plays Count Orlok (aka Nosferatu), is one Max Schreck, “Schreck” being the German word for terror. Maximum Terror – and you thought modern Hollywood had a lock on this sort of thing. Adding to that in terms of myth-making, it was always rumoured that Schreck was in real-life a vampire too (something Willem Dafoe had a bit of fun with when he played Orlok in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire). Whether Schreck sucked blood for fun or not in reality, his Orlok is a very unsavoury piece of work. A long way from the urbane Dracula, habitué of velvet-draped boudoirs, Orlok is bat-eared, bald and has two ratty fangs in the middle of his maw. And as he seeks a place to rest his head in Bremen, spreading plague as he goes, we’re given the distinct impression that this is one deeply troubled soul (if a vampire can be said to have a soul) for whom existence is a curse.

Director FW Murnau’s techniques in the film are noteworthy. Notice how as the action switches between desolate Carpathia and urban Bremen, Murnau on a couple of occasions intercutting the action in the two locations in montage sequence. This is routine today, but back in 1922 Murnau was one of the first to do it. What we’re watching is the book on film language as we understand today being written on the hoof.

Adding to Murnau’s technical mastery is his flair for the theatrical. Considering how quickly horror films go off the boil in terms of shock effect, the sequence where Orlok rises from his coffin while being shipped to Europe – pivoting from the feet like a man attached to a plank (surely that’s how it was done) – is remarkable for its ability, even now, to generate a “wow” if not a shudder. Back in 1922 it scared the shit out of people. Though Nosferatu can’t lay claim to being the first vampire film ever made – the Hungarian Drakula Halála beat it to the post one year before – in terms of sheer atmosphere it’s still one of the best. Maximum Terror indeed.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Nosferatu – at Amazon

 

 

Faust

Emil Jannings as Mephisto in Faust

It says a lot about the continuing differences between the Old World and the New that not one of the many stabs at a straightforward cinematic version of Faust is American. The tale of the old man who sells his soul to have his youth back and then uses his new vigour to ruin a beautiful young girl’s life is a European staple, but probably not the sort of thing Tom Hanks’s agent is going to beat down Meg Ryan’s door with – in the New World you can have it all; in the Old it comes at a cost.

No matter, the German F.W. Murnau made this version in 1926, in the days when any country could make a silent film and show it anywhere in the world – no dubbing or subtitling required, of course. Now, I’m not going to pretend that Murnau’s liberties with the original text will make Goethe scholars happy. Nor will his Expressionist vision completely satisfy the Matrix generation either. But give yourself a few minutes of adjustment – and you will find yourself enjoying the fantastic special effects, the gothic extravagance of his actors’ gestures and Murnau’s flat refusal to be Naturalistic, unless he absolutely has to be. Look at the way Mephistopheles hovers over the sleepy German hamlet, all billowing malevolence – it’s a remarkable and haunting image and all done in camera, with models (obvious models at that). If only more films were like this.

Hollywood snapped Murnau up, and his actors, and showed them the sort of excess that modern film stars can only dream about. By the late Twenties Emil Jannings (the operatic and impish Mephistopheles) was among the most famous actors in the world. But by 1931 the careers of Jannings and Camilla Horn (who plays the pre-Raphaelite Gretchen) were over, killed by the talkies that exposed their accents, and Murnau had died in a car crash.

The garden of earthly delights followed by the day of reckoning – how Faustian is that? Maybe the Americans are just being cautious.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

Faust – at Amazon