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The film classics of F.W. Murnau

March 15, 2009|Dennis Lim

"Never has a film left so little to chance," the French director Eric Rohmer once wrote of F.W. Murnau's 1926 epic "Faust." It's an apt assessment of this baroque morality tale: a battle between good and evil, told through the elaborate interplay between light and shadow.

"Faust" was one of the great spare-no-expense blockbusters of its time, and along with another effects-heavy superproduction, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," it brought about the financial ruin of its legendary studio, UFA. It was also Murnau's last German film before he relocated to Hollywood, where he promptly made "Sunrise" (1927), often considered the greatest American movie of the silent era.

Much of Murnau's tragically brief Hollywood period -- he died in a car crash in 1931 -- is covered in last year's excellent set "Murnau, Borzage and Fox." Kino International this week issues the six-film collection "Murnau" ($99.95), drawn from his German years, digitally mastered from archival restorations.

Murnau seemed to never repeat himself. He worked in a wide range of genres, shooting in the studio and on location, on a grand and intimate scale, but what unites his films is his visual and technical mastery, which went from only strength to strength.

There are a couple of minor efforts here: the 1921 murder mystery "The Haunted Castle" and the 1924 high-society farce "Finances of the Great Duke." But everything else is in some way remarkable: "Nosferatu" (1922) is the first, and still the most haunting, movie version of "Dracula." "The Last Laugh," (1924), the story of a hotel doorman who falls on hard times, introduced dazzling camera movements, the likes of which moviegoers had never seen before. And the two films with which Murnau capped his German career -- "Tartuffe" (1925), based on the Moliere comedy, and "Faust" -- propose audacious solutions to the problem of adaptation, attempting to transform, literature into cinema.

Kino is also releasing a two-disc edition of "Faust" ($29.95) this week, containing the restored German and original U.S. release versions as well as a documentary on the making of the film.

For his German swan song, Murnau had the daunting task of tackling a classic of German drama. The story of the man who sells his soul to the devil is an old legend, but the Goethe version is considered by many (and certainly by most Germans) to be inviolable. In a bid to escape its shadow, Murnau looked also to Christopher Marlowe's earlier take, "Doctor Faustus," and cobbled together bits and pieces from folk retellings (he subtitled his film "A German Folk Legend").

The struggle over the soul of Faust (played in both young and old incarnations by the Swedish actor Gosta Ekman) is here also a battle for the future of humanity. The devil inflicts a plague on Faust's village, causing him to lose faith in God. As a last resort he summons Mephisto (Emil Jannings, who played the doorman in "The Last Laugh") by calling out to him at a crossroads, and soon is captivated by the illusory promise of youth.

It's true that Murnau's formal control does not extend to a consistency of tone. After a mesmerizing first act, the mood shifts and the pace slackens in the middle section, in which Faust courts the pure Gretchen (Camilla Horn). But the film ends with a heart-stopping swoop into tragic melodrama.

Gretchen is abandoned by Faust, ostracized for being pregnant and unwed. When her child dies and she's charged with murder, the stage is set for the lovers' fiery reunion and Faust's redemption.

Compelled to visualize heaven, hell and earth, Murnau and cinematographer Carl Hoffmann deploy their entire bag of tricks: a cranking steam machine, divine rays of light, dreamlike multiple exposures. There are images here that, once seen, will never be forgotten: giant devil wings hovering over the village as the pestilence arrives; the rings of fire that mark Mephisto's first appearance; Mephisto and Faust's breathtaking journey through the sky on his magic cloak, the earthly landscape of mountains and streams stretching out below them.

Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote that Murnau, in departing from Goethe, "vulgarized" the story's nuanced metaphysics. "Faust" might not have anything too profound to say about good and evil or the nature of faith, but in its own way, it is by and for true believers -- a film that worships at the church of cinema.


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