Faust (1926)
Kino Film
Cast: Emil Jannings, Gosta Ekman, Camilla Horn, Wilhelm Dieterle
Extras: Photo Gallery

F.W. Murnau’s 1926 fantasy epic ’Faust’ centers on the timeless battle between good and evil. Mephistopheles (Emil Jannings under a host of disguises) wagers an angelic emissary that he can corrupt Faust’s spirit, with the damnation of all humanity as the prize. The aging sage Faust (Gosta Ekman) indeed sells his soul in exchange for easing the misery of the townspeople struck with the Plague. Once seduced by the promise of renewed youth, however, Faust trades his altruistic intentions for soulless gratification. When he falls in love with the innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn), Faust may yet have one final chance at saving his soul (and humanity’s) from the encroaching inferno.

Harnessing the full capabilities of Germany’s legendary UFA studios, Murnau invoked every camera trick in creating a world where angels and demons gamble souls and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride the skies. Some of the images may seem primitive today, yet they have an almost mythic pull to them. Through miniatures, lighting and makeup effects, Murnau in 1926 achieved what William Friedkin accomplished five decades later in ’The Exorcist’: creating a thoroughly convincing evil on film. As in both cases, the power of the visuals lies not in making the Devil real, but to magnify the emotional stakes of each narrative.

Kino Video recently released a new DVD edition of Murnau’s classic film boasting digital mastering from ’35mm archival materials.’ Unfortunately, the source elements exhibit quite a bit of damage and decay. The full-screen transfer varies in quality. Sometimes, the image is crisp and clear with excellent contrast, while in other moments (mostly contained in the second half) the fuzzy, murky picture drowns all details. Deep black levels and good gray tones help flesh out the cleaner sections.

Timothy Brock’s expansive symphonic score (specially composed for the film and performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra) echoes Wagnerian motifs and Bernard Herrmann orchestrations (the bassoons signifying the brooding Satan are classically ’Herrmann-esque’) as well as serving up tender and comical passages. The Dolby Digital stereo projects amply, sometimes sounding a little too ’big’ against the aging visuals.

Publicity shots, behind the scene glimpses and poster artwork comprise the the Photo Gallery, the disc’s only ’extra.’ The collection offers over thirty snapshots including technicians touching up the miniature town, Jannings in mid-makeup transformation and Ekman (in full Faust garb) strolling around the UFA backlot. Jan Christopher Horak’s superb liner notes help fill the historical gaps.

I really don’t expect any silent film to look pristine, but given the recent reissue of Murnau’s ’Nosferatu’ or such Chaplin fare as ’The Gold Rush,’ I hope Kino’s DVD revisit of ’Faust’ spurs an all-out restoration. Until then, this edition sits proudly on my shelf.

Trivia: Valentin, Gretchen’s brother, is played by Wilhelm Dieterle. Emigrating to America in the 1930s, actor Wilhelm became director William. Dieterle directed such classics as the 1939 version of ’The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and America’s answer to ’Faust’ – the 1941 RKO classic ’The Devil and Daniel Webster.’