Saturday, February 16, 2013

Faust (1926)

WHO: F.W. Murnau directed this four years after making what is now his most famous film, the original vampire movie Nosferatu

WHAT: The tale of the silent film figure whose career died because he or she couldn't make the transition to talking pictures is all too commonly told. Even more tragic are the stories of those whose lives were cut short too soon, and therefore never were given the opportunity to transition or to fail. For some the absence of a significant sound-era career seems to intensify the iconic status of their silent work: think of acting legend Lon Chaney, Sr, who died in 1930 after making just one talking picture (a remake of his silent-era tour-de-force The Unholy Three) or comedienne Mabel Normand, who died the same year and whose voice was never recorded on film. Murnau, who died in a car accident in 1931, just after putting the finishing touches on one of the last silent films released by Hollywood (Tabu) is another such figure. His status as one of the greatest masters of silent film language solidifies with each passing decade, perhaps partially because his silent masterpieces do not have to compete for attention with the talkies that he never filmed. Last year his 1927 film Sunrise rose to fifth place in Sight & Sound Magazine's influential poll of the greatest films of all time. Faust received some votes in that poll, too, from prestigious sources such as curator/historian/critic Pierre Rissient and director Shinji Aoyama

But, as Matt Elrin notes in his chapter on Faust for the book Weimar Cinema, Murnau's film was not well-received in Germany upon its 1926 release. It was considered a faulty adaptation of Goethe's literary masterpiece by the majority of German critics, and failed with audiences as well, making back not much more than half of its enormous production cost for the Ufa studio. Elrin makes an interesting case that Murnau was not interested in representing Goethe's classic for the screen, however, but repurposing it as a metaphor for German culture in general and cinema in particular, with Mephisto representing the seductive "director" figure and Faust himself representing Germany's literary tradition, the soul of which is being contested by those who would use or misuse it for their own purposes. 

Whether Murnau had all this on his mind at all while making the film or not, I've always wondered if he knew while making it that Faust would not be well-received in its day. By the time he started production on the film, he had already proven himself one of the world's greatest directors with his 1924 The Last Laugh. He had already secured an unprecedented deal with the Fox Film Corporation to come to the United States to make films (the first of which would be Sunrise). Mary Pickford's favorite cinematographer Charles Rosher was brought to Berlin to serve as an unofficial consultant on the film, but Murnau's interactions with him revealed a man with his mind already on what he might be able to do with the resources of Hollywood at his disposal. Did Murnau sense that his fortunes might not be tied up with the success or failure of Faust, and therefore feel free to make a film without regarding how it would be understood in his homeland?

Regardless, Faust was more successful in the international market than in Germany, and it wouldn't be so long after his death that it began being cited at one of Murnau's greatest achievements. Elrin translates a passage from critic/director Eric Rohmer, who asserted that with this film Murnau "was able to mobilize all the means at his disposal to ensure total mastery of [cinematic] space." This is typically how Faust is typically seen by cinema lovers today.

WHERE/WHEN: 9:00 PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre

WHY: Faust screens as the capper on a big day of silent cinema at the Castro, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Full previews of the festival have been written by the stalwart Michael Hawley and Thomas Gladysz, but I'll give a brief run-down as well. Prior to Faust the festival screens (in order of appearance on the screen) a 1916 version of Snow White that is said to have inspired Walt Disney to make Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs 20 years later, a trio of two-reel comedies by the can't-go-wrong Buster Keaton, the classic Douglas Fairbanks adventure film The Thief of Bagdad, which I hope is a harbinger of more films directed by Raoul Walsh that I know are currently making the rounds internationally, and Mary Pickford's final silent film My Best Girl. As strong as this program promises to be, especially with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra or pianist Donald Sosin providing live musical accompaniment, Faust is the one I'm most excited to see on the Castro screen for many reasons, one of which is that it gives a week's preparation for another rare opportunity to see a Murnau film in a cinema, as his penultimate film City Girl plays next Saturday at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont.

HOW: Faust will screen from a 35mm print; for more information about its restoration, and details on the other festival films, do read what Carl Martin has dug up. Faust's sound will be provided live by Christian Elliott at the controls of the Castro's beloved Wurlitzer organ. This marks Elliott's first appearance at the SF Silent Film Festival since 2005, when he played wonderfully for the underrated Harold Lloyd comedy For Heaven's Sake, and for the World War I drama The Big Parade. I unfortunately missed the latter show, and have only heard Elliott playing for Keaton comedies at the Stanford in the meantime, so I don't know how well-suited he is to accompanying dramatic material like Faust. But I'm curious. I also missed Dennis James when he played the score to Faust at last year's Cinequest to much acclaim, so I hope I have an opportunity to hear that someday. I'm crossing my fingers that James will reappear at the Castro for the festival's July program; I'd especially love to hear his collaboration with Sosin on a piano/organ duet score for another German expressionist horror film: The Hands of Orlac.

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