Friday, 3 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Faust (1926)


Dir. F.W. Murnau

Revisiting Murnau's adaptation of the legend - of Faust (Gösta Ekman) signing his soul to the Devil (Emil Jannings) - has both been a wonderful experience but has been an eyebrow raising one, abruptly meaning a lot more beyond seeing the film again and this season I'm covering it for. I admit that I wasn't a fan of it the first time I viewed it, not as yet fully appreciate the virtues of films like it, but it had importance in hindsight back when I did see it originally because I saw it while I was at college. This period, between seventeen to nineteen or so, while I wish I could've been more of a freespirit and opened up, rather than merely study and be the good student, was when I started developing the interests and fascinations that I have now. I read literature like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita which drastically changed my attitude to how the written word could be used. I discovered music as diverse as Kraftwerk to the Butthole Surfers which did the same for music. It was also the period where my habit for cinema fully started, originally more inclined to video games as a teenager but growing out of them at this point. Amongst my other subjects, I took Film Studies, opening my mind further, learning the basics of how films were constucted, and seeing movies I'd never considered viewing before, alongside having access to an online DVD rental service and renting films like Faust from the college library. Frankly, I didn't appreciate a lot of the films I saw at the time, artistically important ones, even cult movies I'd love now, many I'm still needing to rewatch after seven years or so from then, but that doesn't detract from what grew in terms of my interest. I found films back then - like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) - in Film Studies class or in my curiosity that stuck out then as great pieces of art even back then, alongside discovering directors like Jan Svankmajer who'd become some of my most treasured auteurs still today. Able to revisit Faust, as I did with Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), another film from the collage library I didn't appreciate until I was much older, I not only find it strange that I once held some flashy, contemporary films of my generation as being significantly superior to them, now having become gimmicky and average, but particularly now with seeing Faust again, I've been given back an emotion from my college days that I can now appreciate more so and use to my advantage. That mindset of being openly curious without bias, without snobbery and able to appreciate anything. The mind that suddenly watches Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror (1975) for the first time on television on a late night, and while unable to fully grasp it, is still fascinated by it. The mind that never gave a time of whether I had the time to go through everything, and could go from listening to a CD of Spanish guitar music and than a book of classical literature, a sponge with no sense of pickiness to what it contacted with. The mind that decided to watch Faust because the DVD cover looked interesting.


Murnau's Faust is a giant melodrama, less concerned with the cerebral musings about life and morality, or the murkier side of humanity that could be covered in the folktale. This is so drastically different from the 2011 adaptation of the folktale by Alexander Sokurov as you can get. Instead you have a film in Murnau's take that, along with Sunrise, can seem naive, but is far from sickly sweet, instead passionate and felt from the heart. With Faust falling in love with a young woman Gretchen (Camilla Horn), after being given his youth back by the Devil, and being desensitised and dulled by decadence, the film becomes much more of a fantastical, religious based romantic tragedy than a take on the morality behind the concept of the Faustian pact. Murnau's work here and with Sunrise are significant arguments though for the failure of modern dramatic cinema. When usually "drama" evokes for me transparent musing, material to pad out magazines and festivals, this film, while not even considering to tackle the philosophical nature of the folktale, does nonetheless have a far greater sense of humanity by just being a melodrama in its core. Faust in unashamedly dramatic, a fantasy romance drama that is elaborate, one of the most extravagant looking silent films made in Germany at this time, Murnau's last in his country  before he went over to the US afterwards, and not ashamed to be melodramatic within this style. It certainly fits the season of Halloween, the story of a pact between a man who rejects faith and science with the Devil, the film containing some of the most fantastical and technically complicated special effects from what I have seen of the 1920s. The gristly looking Horse Men of the Apocalypse riding the clouds, Emil Janning's Devil looming as a giant above Faust's town spreading the plague over it to push the moral man into signing a blood contract, and countless model and superimposition tricks used to create the supernatural and Christian iconography. They are obviously artificial to modern eyes, but these effects are so much more spectacular than CGI because they flux between realism and being fake in a way that is inherently more cinematic. Tonally, what is dark is dark, comedic moments are exaggerated and the romantic melodrama cuts at the heart strings.


It's an incredible work of cinema in construction, both by Murnau and the individuals part of the film, from the actors acting out the scenes without audible dialogue, to the crew of film technicians behind the cameras, working together to create images I remembered, despite my disinterest in the film originally, up until the day I saw it again for this season, images from back during that single viewing retained in my memory. The Devil's first appearance to Faust, summoned by him, casually sat on a rock in the blackest night by the crossroads. The Devil's brief moment of as a jolly comedy character as Gretchen's aunt tries to wrap her arms around him in passion, a brief moment in the middle of the film where it becomes wonderfully light-hearted and silly. Gretchen in the perishing snow as the tragedy takes place. This version of the story is not a serious, existential take on the folktale, like Sunrise easy to criticise for a black and white morality the same shade as its exquisite lit monochrome images. Certainly, modern eyes, or at least the eyes that I viewed it through originally at college, could easily use their own presumptions to dismiss the film's qualities, where wholesome, very moral characters are good and there is nothing to question this barring that there should be a tragedy that befalls them leading to a happy ending. But the sincerity wins over this. Never mind that here particular, while God is in the background, an angel representing Him against the Devil, the film's melodramatic plot in current day context paints most of the peasantry and populous, Christian believers, as puritanical and believing a form of Christianity that is blind and cruel as it punishes our protagonists of the narrative. Murnau's humanity means that that for anything that may seem like it's from a different time, of attitudes of the early 20th century, there is still an undated, sincere belief in the good of people - from Sunrise, to Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922) and the other films I've seen - where his view on love and humanity negates anything that would be incredibly dated or conservative in any other context. The empathy shown in his narratives, his desire to show the best in his characters, is still relevant and powerful today. It means by the end, as the angel makes his last speech to the Devil, even an atheist or a cynic is going to find the final message beautiful, the apparent naivety still much more weighty and important than dismissible fluff.


Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
The spectacle of the film wraps together around it's beautiful emotional core to show how good cinema can be, even if Faust is usually behind films like Sunrise and The Last Laugh (1924) when people think of Murnau's contributions to the medium. Silent cinema, especially with the German films I've seen - by Murnau, Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst - be it drama or pulp, or both, has shown how good cinema can be, it's spectacle and its craft. It's also shown a horrible discrepancy with a lot of cinema after them, not just now, but from the last century, where a few films forgot the importance of the visuals in the medium silent cinema had to depend on. I love film before and after sound was introduced, but looking at how films like Faust and Metropolis (1927) were the zenith of silent cinema, the use of visuals and techniques around them like editing are a textbook directors should be inspired by. The way a film like Faust is made also means it is abstract while still able to be absorbed the first time easily by the viewer. Because the practical effects were literally practical. Because Faust is such a fantastical film. Because with few exceptions, such like Guy Maddin films, the techniques used in silent films are noticeably absent now, giving them an alien quality in their rarity. As a result, bordering between German Expressionism as much as legend, Murnau's Faust is as much a smorgasbord of phantasmagorical cinema as it is an emotionally sweet drama.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
For this review, Faust does mean more beyond this blog. Not just for the nostalgia of finding films like it in collage, but the emotions they all evoke still upon going back to them, by memory or revisiting them. That I've managed to write a review that links F.W. Murnau and the Butthole Surfers together is as much about this too, a mass of varying, drastically different pieces that yet connect into a semiotic whole, also representing my personality through my interests as well as the world around me in the art I've encountered. Whether Faust sustains the passion I have writing about it here, too early to say what its virtues are in the long run, it's going to be an important film regardless that showed me how cinema can be its best. It doesn't matter if I found it dull the first viewing; upon seeing it again, it's shined and lingered in my memory far more than films I once found superior to it that have vanished from my thoughts completely. The result, which any of my Film Studies teachers at college would be happy to hear if any found this review, is that not only have I reappraised a film and found its greatness, but the result of this is beneficial in reflecting back at how I fell in love with this medium originally.


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