Faust

F.W. Murnau’s Faust (with live score by blunderspublik & crys cole)
Friday, August 27 at 7:30 PM
Winnipeg, Cinematheque
Special event admission: $10 non-members / $8 members

Faust is one of the great classic works of German silent cinema from director F.W. Murnau, best known for his 1927 masterpiece Sunrise. Murnau’s Faust features astonishing photography and magnificent art direction which retain the power to amaze.

“Based on a German folk legend, Faust is the story of a man who sold his soul to the devil in an attempt to gain control of the Earth; Mephisto wagers an angel that he can corrupt the soul of the elderly professor Faust. As the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride demonically through the sky, Mephisto towers over Faust’s hometown unleashing a plague that spreads amongst its inhabitants.” – Gary Toze

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From Uptown Magazine August 26, 2010

A vision like no other
F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Faust stands as one of the most incomparable and exemplary cinematic masterpieces

What a marvel this film remains even today.

F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) is one of the great silent classics, alongside the director’s other masterworks, Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise (1927). Of course it feels somewhat dated – but also vibrant and enduringly visionary, with a wealth of imagery the memory cannot dismiss.

It’s worth reiterating that so many films today, even good ones, frequently look like so many others; even the best directors often work within certain prevailing conventions. It’s rare for a film to try for (let alone succeed at) visual distinction, like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Faust is nothing if not distinctive, and is a landmark of what was then still a young medium. Innovators like Murnau were still working out a fuller understanding of their art, which left so much to be discovered on a technical, narrative, and aesthetic level.

The Friday screening of the film at Cinematheque – with accompanying live score by Winnipeg’s blunderspublik – offers an invaluable opportunity for any film student. What should inspire the aspiring filmmaker are the ingenious visual solutions Murnau devised, to express his equally bold imagination.

Take the highly stylized sets, which are very clearly and unmistakably…well, sets. But that’s the point: their very phoniness enhances the fairytale-like atmosphere, as in Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland.

The story is based, of course, on the German folk tale that inspired the Goethe’s like-named epic. That the film occupies the realm of legend is clear, as in definitive scenes such as when the alchemist Faust conjures rings of fire to summon Mephisto. You know who I mean.

Perhaps even more haunting is the action that follows, as Faust tries to depart, and Mephisto’s presence dogs him at every turn: around every corner, on every tree branch, the glowing-eyed fiend sits smiling. This scene in particular has an eerie, dream-like quality.

Possibly the film’s most famous image is of a colossal Mephisto standing astride a townscape, smothering it with his shadow. What an indelible image all by itself – yet it simultaneously advances the story.

The tricks Murnau employed – such as double exposure and rear projection – were simple, but remain no less striking. Filmmakers like Guy Maddin use silent techniques almost as kitsch, yet regard their effectiveness in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula – or in local indie horror epic Aegri Somnia.

Then there’s Murnau’s mastery of light and shadow. Several compositions look like Baroque paintings, employing the technique of chiaroscuro – that is, profound contrast between intense light and shadow.

As Roger Ebert relates in an essay on Faust, Murnau often complained he could see too much, “that all should be obscured except the focus of a scene.” As in Danishka Esterhazy’s Black Field, this only sharpens the narrative drive, pushing action and character to the fore.

Because film is a time-based medium, defined by juxtaposing moving images, it is by nature a narrative form. On the most basic level, then, Faust provides a powerful example of simply how to tell a story in pictures.

– Kenton Smith

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~ by cineflyer on August 9, 2010.

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