Wednesday, December 16, 2009

BNAT 11 - [VINTAGE] Faust (1926)

Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage

Harry had Tweeted that the films this year spanned 85 years, and on Saturday morning, most of us noticed a large, old organ sitting at the front of the theater. So it wasn't much of a guess to suppose that we'd be seeing something from the silent era and that someone was going to provide an organ score for it, just as audiences would have experienced a film at that time. It turned out that our score was to be provided by a guy named Graham Reynolds, who had written his own score for the film.

This was made in 1926, between the two films Murnau is best known for, Nosferatu and Sunrise. The story follows Goethe's version of the tale of Faust, as well as older versions. It begins with a deal between God and Satan. If Satan can win Faust's soul, he will will win dominion over the earth. We see Faust as an alchemist who is despondent because his prayers to stop the devastation of the plague have had seemingly no effect. He soon makes a deal with Satan - Mephisto will be his servant and grant him whatever he wishes for one day, a trial of sorts. When the day is over the pact is broken. Faust starts to heal people in Satan's name who have been ravaged by the plague, but when people notice that he fears the sign of the cross, they shun him. Faust then asks for his youth to return and Mephisto obliges, but when Faust is about to - how shall I say - score with a beautiful woman, the day comes to a close. Faust begs to be able to keep his youth, but Mephisto tells him that if he does then their deal will be forever. Faust agrees.

It's not long, of course, before Faust finds himself unable to be satisfied with anything. His deal with Satan has brought him everlasting youth, a kingdom, wealth, beautiful women, and everything else he has wanted, but now, like cursed Disney pirates, there is nothing that can slake his lust. Until he sees Gretchen. Mephisto procures her for him by means of a locket. (Lockets, by the way, made an appearance in all but the last two of our films this year at BNAT, and now I have an irresistible urge to have a BNAT locket made.) Mephisto sets Faust up so that Gretchen's brother walks in on them in bed together, and when the brother is killed, Faust is accused and flees. Gretchen, meanwhile, has a child by Faust and is shunned as a harlot. Unable to find shelter in the winter, Gretchen huddles in the snow trying to keep the baby warm, but when it eventually dies, Gretchen is accused of murdering it. In her cell, there's a wonderful fantasy sequence where she has delusions, including one where her child is still alive. She is taken to be burned at the stake, and Faust, overcome by grief, wishes he had never gotten his youth back. Mephisto again obliges and Faust becomes an old man again. Faust rushes to the pyre to be burned with her and she sees him as a young man again. They are engulfed by the flames, and Satan loses the bet because love has triumphed over all.

Besides being an incredible viewing experience - thanks in large part to Graham Reynolds' awesome score - Faust was just a knockout of a film. Murnau was a great artist of film anyway, but I was particularly struck by how imaginative he was with a medium that was so relatively new. I don't know that a story was ever so suited for black and white as this is, being a tale so consumed with the light and the dark, and I particularly loved Murnau's technical use of light and shadow.

Like all silent films, hammy acting abounds. I actually thought Camilla Horn was wonderful as Gretchen. But on the other end of the spectrum was Emil Jannings, who played Mephisto with such a snarly brio that if he had added a twirly mustache in the mix, he would have imploded into nothingness and created a black hole of cheesy villainousness from which we might never have escaped. Still, I can't say it wasn't entertaining.

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