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Blu-ray Review: Murnau’s FAUST is an Early Special Effects Extravaganza

It’s not an exaggeration to say that silent films are not everybody’s bag. Unless it’s something like a Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd comedy, it’s likely that most people will lose interest after a bit. I was certainly that way for a long time, but when you start watching the really good horror and fantasy and sci-fi silent films, the interest level comes back in a hurry.

Last month, I told you about Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of the 1925 film, The Phantom of the Opera and what a glorious job they did with it. Now, we have another silent horror flick to add to Kino’s impressive roster: F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film, Faust.

Kino Lorber sort of has the market cornered when it comes to silent films put out on Blu-ray. The complete Buster Keaton catalog comes out through them, as do genre favorites, Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and another F.W. Murnau classic, Nosferatu. Nosferatu is probably the German filmmaker’s best-known film, and it’s a staple of horror film making. He was one of German film powerhouse UFA’s marquis directors, though by the mid-20s, he’d gotten a rep for being a difficult taskmaster. Faust, which was to be Murnau’s final film shot in Germany before migrating to Hollywood, would be a masterpiece of special effects and makeup, and also a monster of a project for a perfectionist like him.

The film, based on both Goethe’s classic writings as well as the traditional folk tellings of the story of Faust, sees the devil Mephisto (Emil Jannings) making a deal with an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) that he could corrupt a righteous and goodhearted man. Mephisto finds the elderly alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekman) in a village beset by the plague. Faust prays to stop the death and destruction but nothing happens. He loses hope and begins burning his alchemy books and the Bible. Eventually, one book opens to a page that explains how to conjure evil to get things done. Without much other hope, Faust does so and Mephisto appears, offering Faust the ability to save his village in return for his soul. Faust agrees, but only on a 24-hour basis.

While he has to power to help those in need in his village, they begin to fear him when they see he cannot be around crosses or bibles. Once the 24 hours are up, Faust asks Mephisto if he can get his youth back so he can forget the cares of the world, which he allows. The young Faust then goes on a debauched journey of fraternizing, eventually signing his soul away permanently. Soon, though, he realizes he’d rather be happy and home and falls in love with an innocent young woman named Gretchen (Camilla Horn). But, naturally Mephisto isn’t going to let him live in peace.

The performances in this film are really tremendous. It’s hard to look at silent movie acting as anything other than arch and melodramatic, which was the way of things back then, but both Ekman and Horn give wonderfully nuanced performances for the type of movie it was. The real standout of the piece is Jannings as Mephisto, though, whose tricksterish grinning and impish movements really give the character a sense of vile playfulness that works perfectly. (Jannings had played the character in a stage production some years before.) After working together, Jannings insisted that Murnau direct this film.

And it’s Murnau’s direction that makes the film. The special effects sequences, especially at the beginning of the film with the giant archangel and Mephisto looming large over the village, are masterful. There are also scenes that are less noticeable, including a fade between Gretchen’s face and a tracking shot over the mountains, which is actually all a model shot. These images are incredibly striking, and different from what Murnau did in Nosferatu.

Murnau was given all the leeway in the world to make this film, and was able to reshoot scenes from many different angles multiple times, meaning there are several completely separate prints of the film, or were at one time or another.

The Blu-ray from Kino has meticulously restored the original German release version of the movie, culling from hours and hours of footage, and features two audio tracks for it: one, a piano score by Javier Perez de Azepitia from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement by Paul Hensel and a second orchestral score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, compiled from historic photoplay music. The set also includes a 53-minute making-of an restoration documentary called The Language of Shadows, and test footage from Ernst Lubitsch’s abandoned version of the film. And, if that weren’t enough, disc 2 is a DVD featuring the 1930 alternate cut of the film.

I’m loving all of these gorgeous restorations of old films that Kino Lorber are doing and Faust fits nicely on any shelf along with the rest of their catalog. Highly recommend for silent horror fans and cineastes alike.

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