Film 12: Faust


Faust (1926) dir. F.W. Murnau.  Germany.

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. Such effects, paradoxically, can be more effective than more realistic ones; I sometimes feel, in this age of expert CGI, that I am being shown too much — that technique is pushing aside artistry and imagination. The world of “Faust” is never intended to define a physical universe, but is a landscape of nightmares. When the elderly Faust is magically converted by Mephisto into a young man, there is a slight awkwardness in the way one image is replaced by another, and oddly enough that’s creepier and more striking than a smooth modern morph. Murnau and his contemporaries were inventing their techniques while they were using them.

— Roger Ebert

Abigail: This is an incredible film.  We see multiple departments working together to achieve a great end, artfully helmed by Murnau.  The makeup adds to the costumes (amazing death mask-like corpse makeup for the plague victims, and strongly arched eyebrows for the devil) and the costumes add to the scenery (both town sets, and the sweep of the countryside, even the establishing shot of the crossroads), and the scenery adds to characters, and the characters are made by the costumes (old Faust’s gigantic robes, and Mephisto’s high collared fitted sheath).  The story is a great one, well stolen from the myths, but the images are really what stand out.  We are let into the great endeavor of the imagery almost immediately with the great archangel (shot from impossibly low) and his evil counterpart (shot from impossibly high) spreading their great wings across the screen.  I can’t imagine how marvelous this would have been to witness in a theatre for the first time.  Also impossible is the beauty of Gretchen, and the marvelous way she floats through space.  One can almost forgive Faust for his devilish seduction, if one doesn’t think about it very hard.

Forrest:  “Faust” is the first timeless work of dramatic art on our docket.  (By “dramatic art” I mean as distinct from the silent comedians — masters in their own right, but using the medium differently than their dramatic peers.)  “Intolerance” is moving and important, but it’s bound by its time.  “Faust” isn’t.  Where “Intolerance” feels old — a little dusty, stuck in 1916 — “Faust” is unmoored in time.  Partly this is thanks to its artificiality.  The sets are clearly sets, the camera trickery is clearly camera trickery, and by embracing this instead of trying to pretend otherwise it becomes timeless.  And partly it’s just a matter of the medium reaching its maturity.  Griffith was still figuring things out, but a decade later Murnau was a master of the form.  His soaring camera, astonishing production design, and swift pacing never falter in their assurance.  He’s as confident as Keaton — and it’s the first time we’ve seen this confidence sustained through a drama.  We glimpsed it in “The Last Laugh,” before things fell apart at the end; and we’ll see it again in Murnau’s next film, “Sunrise,” which is one of the supreme achievements of the silent era.  But this is the first time it’s lasted the full length of a dramatic film, and it’s glorious.

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