Faust (1926)

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*. On every re-viewing I’ve felt a little more in awe of this film. It has spectacle mixed with incredible effects, great performances, and every scene, nearly every shot, is richly composed.
*. Murnau is truly painting with light and shadows, with the contrasting forces introduced right from the opening shots of Mephistopheles standing in silhouette before the angel.
*. It’s a contrast made earlier in Nosferatu. where Orlok is a creature of the night, sometimes represented as a shadow, destroyed by sunlight at the end. This is an original addition to the vampire story, not found in Dracula.

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*. The story here borrows from Goethe, but I wouldn’t call it a film version of that text. Instead it’s a new interpretation of an old story that teaches basic moral precepts: be careful what you wish for, don’t be too ambitious, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s an archetypal story that covers a lot of ground. David Thomson observes that “you can get yourself into a state of mind that reckons nearly every interesting movie ever made is a version of the Faust situation.”
*. I love how Mephistopheles falls backward to the earth, like a scuba diver dropping off the side of a boat, after the making of the initial wager. That’s such a wonderful little touch.

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*. Emil Jannings was a great silent actor. He could certainly ham it up (at a time before the extensive use of close-ups turned the essence of film acting into “less is more”), but he could also be subtle, even in his garish make-up. His slightly bulging, swiveling eyes and flickering tongue are, if not reminiscent of the old serpent, unmistakeably lizard-like.
*. Of course, the problem with having such a great, scene-stealing villain is that when he’s not on screen you feel some of the life go out of the movie. This is Jannings’s film almost as much as it is Murnau’s.

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*. It seems right that the devil should also be a lecherous voyeur, always spying on Faust’s trysts. It tells us there’s something impotent about his lusts, even when he’s fooling around with Marthe. copping an outrageous feel. Where were the censors?

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*. Expressionist sets all seem like works of art more than actual living spaces. The streets, windows, desks, doorways, and shelves here are pieces of sculpture, with limited practical use. The pile of books just inside Faust’s doorway, for example, can’t possibly be standing up on its own. It must be glued together.
*. I didn’t come away impressed by Gösta Ekman as Faust, but he does have great make-up. I couldn’t believe that the same actor was playing young and old Faust. Even being awareo of it I had trouble seeing it.

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*. Murnau’s last movie before leaving for America. It was a hugely expensive production (never tell an artist that money is no object) and didn’t do well at the box office. I think the importance of a strong, simple narrative was forgotten (as Griffiths would forget it when going from Birth of a Nation to the equally brilliant but less enjoyable Intolerance).
*. There seems to have been a wistful idea at work of bringing high culture to the masses. But how many big budget art films have ever been successful? I doubt that’s much of an ambition for anyone today.

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*. The magic carpet rides above a landscape of what are obviously models, but I still like the results as much as I would actual aerial photography. I love the tin moon, cotton clouds, and cardboard castles. I also like looking at snowflakes that are actually chicken feathers. And those elephants! How could you not love those?
*. Janning’s cape and widow’s peak seem an obvious inspiration for Lugosi’s Dracula. This is also hinted at in his appearance over the village as a giant bat.

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*. I think Camilla Horn is really very good, projecting innocence, vulnerability, budding sexuality, and goodness, without being overly sentimental or cloying in a part that invites it. The role was originally pitched at various stars. Murnau had seen Mary Philbin in Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera (where she played Gretchen on stage) and wanted her. Greta Garbo was in the running. Leni Riefenstahl threw her hat in the ring. Lilian Gish came close to being cast (but she wanted her own cameraman).

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*. John Barrymore was originally thought of for Mephistopheles. UFA really wanted that American market. Even before sound and the language barrier, there were identifiable national stars.
*. Murnau was a perfectionist and control freak like Stroheim and Kubrick. There were endless re-takes, and every little detail was fussed over. This ramped up costs, and fatigued the actors considerably. Apparently there were up to 20 takes of some scenes, and all of these were shot with two cameras. A lot of film was used, and as a result it’s hard to settle on any one definitive version of this film.
*. The Language of Shadows documentary included on the Kino DVD makes a good point about how the appearance of Mephistopheles in Faust’s room is more frightening when first seen from a distance than as a close-up. True, and it makes me think of the same effect in Nosferatu, with the shot of Count Orlok outside Hutter’s door. But why should this be the case? I think close-ups, especially coming as a jump cut, are more startling, but evil seen at some distance is more unnerving and mysterious. Evolutionary psychology kicks in: do we still have a chance to run away?
*. There were interesting changes made from German to English text for the American audience. My favourite is when Mephistopheles excuses Faust as he’s “a blue-blooded Prince” in the German version and as “a prince rich as Midas” in the American. America’s aristocracy of wealth makes being rich better than having royal blood.

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