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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Silent Film Marathon: Film 10

The third Murnau film featured in this marathon. After being rather unimpressed by the fist two I was starting to have my doubts about Murnau's films. So I wasn't exactly sure what to expect before watchign this film.

But it turns out that I was very pleasantly surprised. As Faust happens to be one of the best Silent films it has been my pleasure to see over the course of this marathon. 

Faust is one of the most prominent figures of German literature and has been the subject of many plays, literature, poems any many other artforms.

So it was only natural that the classic story would eventually make it's way into the latest art from, Cinema.
Luckily it fell to F. W. Murnau to adapt this epic tale to the screen, for although I wasn't overly impressed by the previous films I watched of his, I still recognise that he was a very talented director, and such a tale in the hands of a less talented director could have only ended badly.

Faust was the last of Murnau's German films, after this one he moved to Hollywood. Strangely enough though, the film that is considered his masterpiece, Sunrise, was made in Hollywood, whereas when most European directors emigrate to Hollywood, there is a visible decline in the quality of their work. Fritz Lang is a great example of this.
Of all Murnau's German films, Faust is the best I've seen so far.
This film follows the legend rather closely although there are numerous minor variations.
It starts with an Arch Angel agreeing to a proposal by Mephisto (Satan), if Mephisto can destroy all that is divine in a old alchemist living in a small village, who is named Faust, the world will belong to him. 
So Mephisto sets out to corrupt Faust and get him to renounce God.
He sows the seeds of the deadly Plague over Faust's village, people turn to Faust for help as he is very knowledgeable. But he then realises that all this knowledge is useless to him. He has spent his life with his face in dusty old books yet is unable to stop Death.
Surrounded by misery, death and despair he turns to God, only to find that God is described as merciful and good in the Bible. But God does not respond to his prayers and he wonders just how merciful he actually is.
In despair he turns to the Prince of Darkness, Mephisto, Satan himself. He answers his calls and proceeds to trick him into selling his soul in exchange for the power to work miracles, but the temptation proves to much and Faust also gives in to the offer of eternal youth in exchange for selling his soul for ever.

Consequently, Faust is lured into a life of youthful indulgence and pleasure, he travels with the Mephisto and has turned his back on God. But then he meets Gretchen, an innocent young women living in an idyllic village. Faust falls in love with her, much to Mephisto's discontent.
The rest of the film tells the tale of Faust and Gretchen's doomed love and tragic fate, but I won't reveal any more than I already have.

One of the first things I should mention his that Mephisto is played by Emil Jannings, you may remember me mentioning him in my previous review for another Murnau film, The Last Laugh. Here he is virtually unrecognisable, in a large amount of make up, with a completely different character than in The Last Laugh. Yet he is excellent once again, Mephisto is a gloating, creeping, despicable character, not very impressive yet very dislikeable, almost the exact opposite of Janning's character in The Last Laugh.

Even though this film is very much driven by it's story, which is consistently interesting and though provoking, it is still visually fascinating. There is an abundance of remarkable special effects and memorable scenes throughout the film. One of the most recognisable would be the shot of Mephisto looming over the village:

But others are equally impressive, such as the scenes of Faust and Mephisto flying high in the air on a magic cape. Or the scene in which Gretchen calls for Faust's help. Such stunning visual imagery is scattered throughout the film, with particular emphasis on the black vs white contrast, mirroring the central good vs evil theme of the narrative.
The set design was great, not particularly flashy but there were some interesting pieces. The make up however was brilliant, Mephisto's transformation was amazing, as was Faust's and the Archangel was very impressive.
I particularly admired Murnau's way of shooting a close up of his actors faces, he didn't do this very often, but I was always glad to see them as such shots were quite rare in the Silent Era:

The narrative is a particularly interesting one, it moves along at a great pace and is perfectly comprehensible thanks to well placed inter-titles.
There were some scenes that I thought were unnecessary, mainly the scenes involving Aunt Marthe and her strange infatuation with Mephisto, this felt strangely comic and out of place in the film as a whole, they could definitely have been cut as they ultimately result in nothing.
But overall, I found the story to be fascinating. It is very tragic, and towards the end the focus shifts onto Gretchen slightly. It presents some interesting ideas of faith and such things but the main theme of the film is ultimately one that has been seen many times before and many times since, Love Conquers All.
This is something Mephisto cannot understand and thus destroys his chances of ruling the World.

I liked the fact that the film didn't go for an unlikely happy ending, it was tragic and in keeping with the general tone of the film.

All in all, this is the best Murnau films I've seen so far. It easily restored my faith in his talents after the disappointing The Last Laugh.
I would definitely recommend it to those interested in his work, or perhaps in this period of Cinema, as it ranks amongst the best films to come out of Germany in the 20's, which is saying a lot seeing as Germany was making the best films around in those years.
Anyway, a great film and definitely a new addition to my favourites.

Next up is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which is said to be Murnau's best film! I'm looking forward to it and hope I won't be disappointed.

As always comments are appreciated and will be answered!

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