Faust (Kino Lorber, NR)

dvd faustOne of the greatest screen versions of the Faust legend is Friedrich Murnau’s 1926 film.

 

 

Faust is one of the core narratives of German literature. It has penetrated English and European literature, as well, from Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus to Gounod’s 1859 opera Faust. The greatest single version may be the Goethe’s two-part play, but the story of the man who sold his soul for knowledge, and his salvation through the pure love of the woman he betrayed, has become common cultural currency that writers and other creative artists may draw on and adapt to their own purposes, from The Devil and Daniel Webster to Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights.

One of the greatest screen versions of the Faust legend is Friedrich Murnau’s 1926 film Faust, starring Gösta Eckman as Faust, Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Emil Jannings as Mephisto (a hammy role that perfectly suited his talents), Wilhelm Dieterle as Gretchen’s brother Valentin, and Yvette Guilbert as Gretchen’s aunt Marthe. That’s quite a lineup. Murnau also directed, among other films, Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise (1927); Eckman was one of the biggest stage and screen stars of his day; Horn was a young but radiant actress (Faust was her second film); Dieterle went on to become a noted director in Hollywood; and Guilbert was a star of Parisian cabaret (and favorite subject of Toulouse-Latrec).

Murnau frames Faust’s temptation in the context of a battle between Mephisto and an Archangel. Mephisto claims he can corrupt even the most righteous man on earth, and that if he succeeds in doing so, will be able to claim dominion over the earth. His target is Faust, an elderly scholar and philosopher who lives only for knowledge. Mephisto sends a plague to Faust’s village, and Faust finds that both his science and his prayers are useless in helping his neighbors. As he is throwing his books in the fire in despair, one falls open to a page containing instructions on how to call up the devil (who knew such information was contained in scholarly books?), and Faust heads off to the crossroads to do just that.

After some horse-trading and a one-day free trial, Faust sells his soul in return for youth and pretty much anything else his heart should desire. Unfortunately, a lifetime spent in the lab and in the library hasn’t given Faust good judgment in human matters, and he quickly ruins the life of an innocent young girl, Gretchen. Tragedy compounds on tragedy, but Faust remains innocent of it until it’s almost too late. This is a movie about redemption, so you can bet that the devil won’t get his due, after all.

On top of a superb cast and a classic story, Faust benefits from great visual storytelling (which is mostly what directors had to work with in the days of silents) and the best special effects that could be created at the time. Effects like the letters of fire appearing on the devil’s contract are particularly impressive, as are the scenes of flying over the world (created with models and the camera on a track).

The restored edition of Faust is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The image looks remarkably good given the age of the film, and it comes with two soundtracks, one piano only and one orchestral. The intertitles are in German (Fraktur, of course, given the period), with optional English subtitles. This release also comes with numerous worthwhile extras, including, on a second disc, a complete earlier release of the same film.

It’s worth noting that, due to the impossibility of making high-quality copies of negatives at the time, and the fact that negatives wore out as they were used to make multiple positive copies of a film for distribution, the usual practice at the time was for multiple negatives to be assembled from different takes shot by the director. That meant that the German release of a film might be noticeably different from the version released in America, and the European version yet again markedly dissimilar. This process is described in detail in a 53-minute documentary, which includes many comparisons of the different versions of Faust released in different markets, and also discusses the director’s working process and how many of the special effects were created. The final extra is some screen tests for Marguerite and Faust, a 1923 film planned by Ernst Lubitsch but never produced. | Sarah Boslaugh

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