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Faust

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****½

Murder! Murder! Murder!

The archangel and Mephisto, wagering on the fate of humanity, Faust from 1926.

The archangel and Mephisto, wagering on the fate of humanity, Faust from 1926.

I was fortunate enough to watch the 116 minute version restored in 1997 instead of the often seen 85 minute version. Regardless, this is based on the play by Johann Wolfgang Goethe; the silent movie is adapted by F.W. Murnau. Normally the screenwriters get the majority of the credit for adapting a play or novel, but in the silent movie era the screenwriters were just credited with the “titles”, a term for the cards indicating what was said. Murnau is often regarded as the master of German Expressionism and is one of the three best silent film directors ever. While not his most famous work, Faust ranks up there with his most famous movie, Nosferatu. 

I wonder which story is more famous now, that of Faust and his pact with the devil, or the story of Dracula, even if it Nosferatu is technically an unauthorized version of it. On the surface of it, Faust sounds like a more modern story than that of Dracula, since Bram Stoker’s novel was released in 1897. On the other hand Goethe released Faust in the early 19th century. But were these the original versions of these stories? Faust appears to be Goethe’s take on a German legend. On the other hand, I know that the story of Dracula dates back to the days before modern German, Russian or any other language that people now actually speak. Of course he was more famous as Vlad, the Impaler, before the name Dracula caught on.

Mephisto (Jannings) watches Faust (Ekman) with Gretchen (Horn).

Mephisto (Jannings) watches Faust (Ekman) with Gretchen (Horn).

Moving on to the movie itself there could be an entire book written to analyze it. But I will do what I can in the space that I have. The first question I have is whether or not this movie is pro G-d, or not. On the surface there is an archangel willing to put the world into the hand’s of Mephisto if one good man can be corrupted to evil. That is a terrible f’n deal. One made out of hubris and pretty much ignored at the close of the movie. The implication of which I do not truly understand. I do not know if G-d’s and the archangel’s lack of interference is an honorable thing or something pathetic. The main character shifts from Mephisto—Emil Jannings, to Faust—Gösta Ekman, and to Gretchen—Camilla Horn. It is a rare storytelling technique and it left me wondering why it was not Faust the whole time. Gretchen’s sufferings were the greatest and, I think, that Murnau wanted to use the film to highlight how ostensibly good, godfearing people can be instruments on evil in the name of G-d just easily as Faust could try to do good in the devil’s name. Even her love of Faust is as corrupt and superficial as the devil who ensnared her for Faust. Yet it is their love that admits them to Heaven. So many questions!

For me, the highlights of this film are its look and special effects. Using the technology available at the time, Murnau made magic. The devil did not seem like the stereotypes with which I am familiar. I do not know why this look did not catch on in the way that early deerstalker cap did for Sherlock Holmes.  That old Faust was played by Ekman, who played young Faust, surprised me. Thoughts like this go on and on. They are what help make this movie special. Now that you have read this review, try watching Kino Lorber’s GIFs from Faust.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

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****

I go to my death, gladly. But please do not make me suffer too long.

Carl Dreyer’s alleged masterpiece, La passion de Jeanne d’Arc,  has an interesting story behind it. One that may be read in a variety other places elsewhere. I am interested primarily in one thing. Joan’s face.

The Criterion Collection DVD cover

I thought that was a wooden model, or a sculpture. But no, that is Maria Falconetti’s face, because she played Joan. She spends much of the film crying in closeups. It is oddly affecting and touching.

The odd thing is that Joan is not beautiful, but I cannot stop looking at her. Her simultaneous frailty and strength must have been exhausting to express. Dreyer’s film relied so heavily on her casting that the reason I saw this movie 84 years after its initial release is due primarily to her performance, and her saintly face. Not that I knew it when I ordered it from Netflix.

*Note, I enjoyed the film with the optional score, “Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light: A choral and orchestral work performed by vocal group Anonymous 4 soloist Susan Narucki and the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic and Choir.” In total silence I had trouble focusing as much on it, and it was never intended to be viewed without music, merely the cinemas were to provide in house soundtracks.

The General

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**½

There were two loves in his life: his engine and —

This is my first Buster Keaton film.  For those that do not know, he was every bit as famous as Charlie Chaplin in the silent movie industry.  This tells a story set in 1861 of a railroad engineer in those troubling times; his name is Charlie Grey.  Unfortunately his utility as an engineer prevents him from enlisting in the Southern Army.  The classical score is quite interesting and makes me wonder if the editor cut the film to the music, or vice versa.  As a huge Tchaykovsky fan I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it.  The first act ends with Keaton riding the piston of a train—comedy gold for the 1920’s!  His locomotive…that’s the general.

His ex-lady gets kidnapped by Union army saboteurs who steal his locomotive and only he endeavors to rescue the train with her on it.  He lost her because of accusations of cowardice for his failure to enlist. While the plot was pretty interesting, silent storytelling is probably more novel than the story itself.  Thanks to Grinnell College and UChicago I have seen more than my share of silent films, but why would the average Netflix subscriber opt to watch them?  There is a deep prejudice against  such films, as there is against animated films in some groups.  The most interesting thing for me was the danger of the stunts and the ease with which Buster Keaton pulled them off.  He would fit in well with a Jackie Chan movie.  Although he has a Severus Snape look to him, which makes for an interesting protagonist.

A few of the jokes did not sit well with me, but Keaton is so charming he can take an unpleasant bear trap joke and get a chuckle out of me.  The female lead had less to work with, but she did her best.  She was a real sport when it came to the ol’ shove her into a burlap sack gag!  To be totally frank I got bored with this movie pretty quickly.  It’s well shot and the action and jokes just keep coming, but it’s really old.  I will probably have more fun thinking about this movie than I did watching it.  In good conscience I cannot really give it less than 3 stars though.  So I did so in bad conscience because I got tired of the movie so much.

Nosferatu

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****

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens in the original German, tells the story of Count Orlock (Max Schreck).  This 1922 silent horror classic would have been called Dracula, but the owners of the copyright would not sell.  The core to this films resonance is Schreck’s performance.  Almost 90 years later he is still the most frightening vampire captured on film.

See also Shadow of the Vampire, which tells a fictionalized account of the filming of Nosferatu and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake– Nosferatu the Vampyre.