Sunday 21 September 2014INDEX
Feast of Faust

F W Murnau's Faust is opera on film, or perhaps more accurately ballet without music; in the same way that Fellini is circus on film, Goddard cartoon comics, Ozu a mother's day card and a bunch of flowers or Lean an airport shop novel.

It begins with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse coalescing into a single light, just like the start of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The alleged villain (Emil Jannings as Mephisto) is like a combination between the Penguin out of a Batman film (he even has the strange penguin style cloven flippers instead of hooves which I guess were difficult to create) and a character from a Kurosawa film. Of course there's a case for saying the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) is the real baddie for welching on the bet, but I don't think Goethe would have approved of that reading.

Murnau's influence on cinema was colossal. When it is said that film makers fleeing Europe in the 1930s brought Film Noir to Hollywood, quite clearly the baggage they were carrying was primarily Murnau's films: Faust and Nosferatu.

Watching the film it surprised me that the leading female role Gretchen was not taken by Lillian Gish but instead went to the unknown Camilla Horn. I subsequently discovered that Murnau had wanted Gish to play the part but she said she'd only do it if she got her own cinematographer on the film. Murnau refused and instead used Carl Hoffmann (who seems to have been second or third choice). Hoffmann's cinematography was amazing

This film came out shortly before Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr, which I also saw recently. The difference in the cinematography is extraordinary. Whereas Keaton treats the film set as a stage, even when he's working on location, Murnau plays with the camera creating shots in which it's almost impossible to decide where the vertical is; using ultra close ups; disembodied shadows and even a shadow theatre. The editing seems slow and static by modern standards but even so there are some extremely rapid shots.

Returning to that comparison with Steamboat Bill Jr, which has been lovingly restored, it's a pity that the same care and attention has not been given to Faust, which is an infinitely better film. Quite a lot of Faust seems faded and grey. Sometimes images even seem to creep into the intertitles. How the heck does that happen? I also saw a totally static background disintegrate on one side of the frame away from all the action, so that it would have been quite easy to find a clean frame and substitute that part of the image in the corrupted frames. No doubt it is a work in progress. I imagine the cost of restoring a film like this is enormous and Faust seems, like many films, to have been bedevilled by ownership issues (though how anyone can own a work published in 1926 is a mystery to me).

Faust has been told and re-told hundreds, probably thousands, of times. For example there's Bedazzled (1967) with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and then there's Faustus Kelly (1943) by the extraordinary Flann O Brien. But I suspect this version is one of the most authentic to Goethe's original text. Hollywood didn't like the script and it didn't work for me. I thought it was too flabby, but somehow I don't think the script writer (Hans Kyser though Gerhart Hauptmann is actually given the screen credit) had me in mind for his audience!

People brought up to believe that silent cinema was Charlie Chaplin walking oddly because the film was being projected at the wrong speed, or the Keystone Cops, will clearly find this film a surprise since it is great cinema for any age: a classic.

Oddly Leni Riefenstahl applied for the Gretchen role but did not get it. Considering this character ends up being burnt at the stake and Riefenstahl subsequently went on to be possibly the most hated film maker ever since she seemed to be cheer leader for the Nazis, it is extraordinary to think of what history would have done with shots of her on the pyre!

Sunday 21 September 2014INDEX