Director: F.W. Murnau
Writer: Hans Kyser
Cast: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn
Length: 106 min / 115 min
Label: Kino Classics
Release Date: November 17, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.26:1
Type: Black and White
Audio: LPCM 2.0
- Alternative 115 min Cut (SD Only)
- The Language of Shadows: Faust
- Test Footage from Ernst Lubitsch’s abandoned Marguerite and Faust
The story of Faust is one of the oldest and most retold stories in the Western canon. One needn’t not read Goethe nor Christopher Marlowe (two of the most prominent versions available to date), to know the iconic story of the aging scholar who sells his soul to the devil in order to obtain immense power, knowledge, and youth. It simply prevails as an almost autonomous part of the fabric of our culture; seeping its way into numerous forms of literature, film, art, and music. When F.W. Murnau embarked on his adaptation of the story in 1926 — his 17th and last German film — it was the first time (but not the last) that it would be featured in film…and, in many ways, it remains the best “faithful” production of the fable. After a few notable releases of the film — probably the best being Eureka’s release in 2014 — Kino Lorber have thrown their hat into their ring, offering a brand Blu-ray of Murnau’s masterpiece of German Expression.
At the time of its release, Faust was the most expensive film that Universum Film AG (UFA) — a national film company formed in Germany in 1917 to promote national interest — had commissioned. F.W. Murnau had already proven his worth as a visionary with Nosferatu and The Last Laugh by the time he embarked on this production, and it seems that his goal, here, was to create the biggest and best film that German had ever produced. While the release of Metropolis in the following year smashes that goal, Faust stands as perhaps German’s second most ambitious silent film, one that still looks impressive today.Faust is a multi-layered story that blends the timeless theme of good versus evil with notions of human’s desire for infallibility and the greed and hubris that it entails. The film opens by depicting a bet between the demon Mephisto (Mephistopheles) and an Archangel — crosscut with images of Faust — who will serve as the subject of their bet. The bet is simple: Mephisto wagers that he can corrupt a pure soul and if he is successful, he will win the right to reign over Earth. Mephisto hatches his nasty plan by, first, unleashing a plague upon Earth. As the bodies begin piling up, Faust struggles to make sense of what is happening around him. His methods and prayers both go unanswered, and, in a fit of rage, he begins to set fire to his alchemist texts and his holy scriptures. However, as the texts burn, a strange one catches his attention and his pulls it from the fire. In the book, Faust reads of a pact that could grant him unmatched “power and glory.” Eventually, Mephisto appears to Faust as an old man and proposes to him a contract. Faust is hesitant at first; the promise of youth and limitless knowledge and power is attractive but Faust is a good man who fears the repercussions of the contract. To trick Faust, Mephisto gives him 24 hours to decide whether to continue with the pact or not…and we all know how that ends. At 106 minutes — and 115 for the extended cut included —, Faust — even in all of its splendor — feels a trifle bit long. At first, Murnau’s beautiful whirlwind of superimpositions, visual effects, and stark cinematography (by Carl Hoffmann) are captivating but as the film continues, it is easy to become almost fatigued by the overt-stylization. Much like Sunrise and Nosferatu, Murnau’s a master of visualization but sometimes struggle with plotting. Still, the film remains an impressive feat of filmmaking, one that resonates strongly today. The story, as universal as it has become, is still powerful and moving. The film becomes even more fascinating when you compare the theme of ‘Man’s search for unequal power,’ with the political state of German at the time of its creation. Its easy to overstate and conflate these themes with the coming rise of fascism in the country, yet these fears could be read as being delivered through their cinematic output — and there are plenty of examples in other films. While Gösta Ekman hands in a terrific performance as the titular character, it is really Emil Jannings that steals the show as Mephisto. Whether he is frighteningly towering over cities, lashing out in spits of rage, or just doing his best to trick those he speaks to in human form, Jannings demonstrates himself a brilliant expressionistic actor. As good as the actor is, Murnau remains the driving force behind the film. Faust looks like a Gustave Dore painting set to motion, a beautiful piece of Gothic silent cinema. Much of the stylistic tendencies that he employs in Faust will reappear in his following film Sunrise, making Faust the perfect balance between his expressionistic films and his coming career in America.
Similar to problems that Kino (and all restorations really) had with The Phantom of the Opera, the presentation of Faust is not entirely clean. The film is terribly old and while it seems to be well maintained, the results aren’t as clean and impressive as we have seen with a film like Metropolis. This print is a bit more worn and damaged, with some jumps, scratches, and debris. However, moving past this, the results are still quite stunning. The effects hold up well in high definition and the areas of the print that haven’t succumbed to time, look impressively clear. The restoration is sourced from the same transfer that Eureka used, courtesy of Luciano Berriatua on behalf of the Filmoteca Espanola and was performed by L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna.
The Blu-ray cut of the film features the choice between a piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia (from a 1926 piece by Paul Hensel) and a orchestral score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (derived from “historic photoplay music”). While both pieces are pleasing and nicely presented via 2.0 LPCM soundtracks, The Mont Alto score is far more expansive and gives the film a better sense of urgency.
For many, this may seem like a small element, but I have really been pleased with the artwork choices Kino have been making on their latest releases. The recently reviewed Blu-ray of The Mask featured a great and pulpy poster and the Phantom of the Opera Blu-ray had the excellent original poster image. Similarly, Faust’s Blu-ray has a haunting sketch of Mephisto, one that brilliantly captures the style of the film. Additional to the cover, Kino has included The Language of Shadows: Faust, which is part of a series of ‘making of’ style documentaries by Luciano Berriatua on Murnau’s career. At 53 minutes, the documentary gives a fantastic insight into the film but it does lack a sense of unique character. There is also some interesting “test” footage of Ernst Lubitsch’s production of Marguerite and Faust, which Lubitsch abandoned in 1923 (what would have otherwise been the first Faust). It’s hard to really judge the production off of what is given here, but it seems safe to say — given Lubitsch’s films — that his production would hardly been as lavish and visionary. Finally, this release features the alternative (and longer) cut of the film as a standard definition presentation.
While the transfer is not as clean as some may have desired, it’s probably (currently) the best that anyone will get. As Eureka and Kino often release competing titles, the fact that both source from the exact same master suggests that it is definitively the best on the market. Murnau’s Faust is really a staggering work of cinematic genius that continues to marvel audiences. There are cinematographic devices used in the film that are still baffling in their imagery and ingenuity. Packing the release with a solid set of extra features (although the lack of commentary track is a bit sad), Kino Classic’s release of Faust is a sure-fire crowd pleasers and a solid contender to Eureka’s prior release.