Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage

 (Friedrich W Murnau, Germany, 1926) 106 minutes


Director: Friedrich W Murnau
Producer: Erich Pommer
Screenplay: Gerhart Hauptmann,
  from the play by
  Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Cinematography: Carl Hoffmann
Gösta Ekman (Faust)
Emil Jannings (Mephisto)
Camilla Horn (Gretchen)
Frieda Richard (Mother)
Yvette Guilbert (Marthe)
William Dieterle (Valentin)

Reviews and notes

1992 Wellington

Faust, with its supernatural vistas of heaven and hell, is particularly distinctive in the way it uses the whole canvas. Consider the startling early shot of Mephisto, his dark wings obscuring the sky as he hovers above a little village that huddles in the lower right corner. Murnau treated the screen as if it offered a larger space than his contemporaries imagined; long before deep focus, he was creating double-exposures like shots in Faust where a crowd of villagers in the foreground is echoed by faraway crowds in the upper corners...Like all silent-film directors, Murnau was comfortable with special effects that were obviously artificial. The town beneath the wings of the dark angel is clearly a model, and when characters climb a steep street, there is no attempt to make the sharply angled buildings and rooflines behind them seem real... The world of Faust is never intended to define a physical universe, but is a landscape of nightmares.
- Roger Ebert, 8 May 2005.

In one of the great classics of German expressionist cinema, Goethe's famous tale of the man who makes a pact with a demon is brought to life by FW Murnau, perhaps the silent era's most brilliant director. This is the kind of work which will never go out of date. It still has plenty of thrills and chills - and sinister laughs - for a modern audience. It also looks stunning, and the special effects, many of them employed for the first time ever, are spectacular.

As the hero, both in youth and old age, Goesta Ekmann is admittedly somewhat blank, but this would seem to be intentional - he is, after all, the straight man, a stooge for the antics of the playful and malicious Mephisto. The latter is sent from Hell following an argument between the Devil and the Archangel Michael, whereby the future ownership of the Earth is wagered upon the demon's ability to destroy what is divine in the hero.

Emil Jannings is tremendously charismatic in the demonic role, alternately capering like a pantomime villain and setting up vicious traps for his supposed master. One after another, everyone Mephisto encounters is tempted to corruption or death; the only one who seems able to challenge him is the maiden Gretchen, whose very innocence inspires in Faust an obsession which may lead to her doom.

The story develops slowly, but Murnau needs all of its astonishingly long time to display his fantastic visual imagery. A full moon over a crossroads at midnight; a burning Bible turning to Satanic text; exquisite model villages unfolding into Escher-like landscapes; a huge parade of dancers and artificial elephants - remarkable imagery which enables the reader to share in Faust's seduction. Murnau was strongly influenced by some of his contemporaries - we see here the deliberately obscure geometry favoured by Robert Wiene, for instance - but in Faust he has created something entirely his own.

Some of the lifestyles and attitudes displayed in this film may seem inaccessibly antiquated to modern viewers, but they were daring in their time, and critical to Murnau's message about the ever-present possibility of redemption. There are moments of startling eroticism, an intense focus on pleasure to contrast with the hero's periods of self-doubt, in which latter he is shown sitting alone atop a craggy mountain. This is essentially a modern film, indicative of changing times, which makes its story all the more potent and provides it with a lasting emotional charge.

The histrionic acting style which made effective communication possible in the silents is expertly managed, though, since so much of the tale depends on verbal negotiation, there are frequent intertitles - those reading them in the original German may encounter some difficulty on account of the archaic script used, but this writing is every bit as beautiful as the picture itself. Murnau's precise use of light moves between cruelly stark black and white and moody gloom, making a strong contribution of its own to the characters and the wonderfully detailed sets. This is an example of the silent movie at its very best.
- Jennie Kermode, Eye For Film. 04 Apr 2009.

Live Cinema Presentation

This Wellington Film Society screening will be accompanied by a new score arranged and played by Te-Whanganui-a-Tara musicians: Erika Grant, Isaac Smith, Rosie Langabeer and Neil Feather. Our screening is supported by the Goethe Institut and the Wellington City Council.

This will be WFS’s first film with a live score since 2017’s The Last Command and will expand the boundaries of the conventional cinema experience, bringing live music and sound effects to the giant Embassy screen.

Between them, the three musicians have provided live scores for several WFS films in the past, at their previous home of the Paramount Theatre.

Erika Grant is a multi-instrumentalist, playing in local bands including Orchestra of Spheres and Cookie Brooklyn and the Crumbs. Double bassist, improvisor and sonic artist Isaac Smith spent years living in Columbo, Sri Lanka, teaching at a private music school, organising gigs, and recording albums for himself and others. Rosie Langabeer plays various instruments and works across a range of mediums, including polyrhythmic disco jams and a renegade street band project called PARADEAMONIUM. Neil Feather is an inventor and performer of experimental musical instruments and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.

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