Yesterday I watched a DVD of F. W. Murnau’s Faust. The title finally rose to the top of our Netflix queue after who knows how many months or years. I put it on the queue when I was watching some old Fritz Lange films, like M, The Spiders, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. You may know how this works: Netflix shows you a bunch of similar titles whenever you add one to the queue, so you end up watching them in flurries.
The plot of Murnau’s Faust more or less resembles what I recall of Goethe’s play, which I skimmed in a Thespian fit that took me in high school. I was nowhere near as affected by this Faust as by Murnau’s The Last Laugh, which I also watched recently. But The Last Laugh is about a guy who loses his job, so it might hit closer to home.
I was very impressed by Murnau’s special effects in Faust, especially during the first 30 minutes or so. Murnau applied a variety of photographic, lighting, and practical stage effects to create a stream of weird, dreamlike visions, very well suited to the story. In one effect that I find particularly impressive, Mephisto holds up a clean parchment and we see the text of Faust’s contract erupt, burning across the surface amid clouds of smoke. I can only guess how the effect was achieved. It might be done by writing the text first with a clear, hypergolic chemical and then exposing the parchment to a complementary gas. However it was done, its unquestionable realism shames anything similar I’ve seen tried digitally.
This Faust DVD was produced in 2007 by Westlake Entertainment, Inc., but I just noticed Google Videos has a complete online version here. The Google version seems to have the original caption cards (in German) with English subtitles. The Westlake version has all new, somewhat plainer caption cards, with the opening credits in German and dialog cards in English.
The Westlake DVD is rather puzzling in that way. Why re-do the opening cards and leave them in German? In particular, the second card in the show (after “Faust”), carries the subtitle “Eine deutsche Volkssage” without translation. So off I went to Google Translation to learn that the card reads “A German Folk Tale.” What’s more, “Volkssage” was displayed with two different “s” characters, sending me off to read about things like the long s and its use in Blackletter script, which the opening cards were set in. Then I noticed the translated cards on the DVD were set differently, in something like Insular script, which led to even more research. All told, I think it took well over an hour for me to get past the first line of dialog.
While I’m comparing the DVD to the Google version, I’ll mention that these are clearly two different instances of the film’s many editions (the DVD is 10 minutes longer). The DVD version has a rather good classical-style score, not far from what I’d guess the original 1920′s score might have been. The version on Google is scored in a very strange musical style that I can’t identify, sort of a scary goth German industrial classical mash-up.
When the show reached the home of “Marthe Schwerdtlein,” I had to go look that name up! Google Translate can’t handle “schwerdtlein” at all, so I removed the diminutive suffix “lein,” getting “schwerdt.” Google’s translation? “Fogarty”! Boy howdy, I never saw that coming. What does “fogarty” mean? Ancestry.com says it’s from the Irish for “proclaimed,” “banished,” or “outlawed.” But I’m pretty sure “schwerdt” is really an old spelling of “schwert” (sword) making “schwerdtlein” a little sword, or something along those lines. Murnau’s script skips over Dame Marthe’s husband, but I think maybe Goethe was having a little extra fun at the late Herr Schwerdtlein’s expense. Either way, the digression delayed my viewing yet again.
After the first 30 minutes or so the fantastical special effects tail off some, but Murnau’s crafty lighting and sets carry on throughout Faust‘s tragic tale. I was also impressed by Emil Jannings‘ portrayal of Mephisto. Jannings also played the porter in The Last Laugh, but I never would have noticed if he wasn’t named on both DVD sleeves. It takes a good actor to create such utterly different characters.
All in all, I think Murnau’s Faust deserves a look by anyone interested in cinema, photography, or stagecraft.