Masters Of Cinema #78 - Faust - Blu-ray Review

'What is consistently apparent is Murnau's meticulous attention to detail and his obvious fervour for creating a truly artistic piece of cinema'.

My only other experience thus far of the work of F.W. Murnau was also provided by Eureka! Entertainment's Masters Of Cinema series in the form of Nosferatu, now infamous as one of the earliest surviving adaptations of Stoker's Dracula, and which in truth left me a little underwhelmed. Whilst Murnau's skill as a director was clearly evident throughout, Nosferatu's narrative too often felt unsatisfying, especially when compared to its source novel.

Faust, however, is far more successful in this regard. Working from Hans Kyser's screenplay version of the German folklore tale, also influenced by several previous adaptations including those of Goethe and Marlowe, Faust successfully manages to tell the story comprehensively and entertainingly in just over one hundred minutes. The first hour is genuinely captivating, Murnau effectively setting up the overarching premise - that of a wager between the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) and an Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) whether the soul of Professor Faust (Gösta Ekman), a righteous man, can be corrupted - before swiftly setting up the central relationship between Faust and Mephisto. Ekman impresses in the title role, convincing as both the aged and virtuous Faust of the opening act and the more self-serving youthful version of the character seen later on. The most memorable performance comes from Jannings however, creating in Mephisto a simultaneously pantomimic and malevolent presence, providing many of the film's most enjoyable and chilling moments.

Visually, Faust is consistently a treat, surpassing much of the more iconic imagery of Nosferatu in terms of artistic panache. Famous as a perfectionist, Murnau shot multiple performances of each scene with the aim of crafting a flawless final product, constructing the domestic German cut (the version presented here by Masters Of Cinema) from what he saw as only the finest takes. Not being familiar with any of the other versions made for release in other parts of the world, it's impossible for me to compare this cut to any other; but what is consistently apparent is Murnau's meticulous attention to detail and his obvious fervour for creating a truly artistic piece of cinema. The director's use of light and dark throughout is both striking and beautiful - early shots of Mephisto looming over Faust's home town are unforgettable - and his selection of camera angles at times markedly forward-thinking. A shot placing the feet of a dead plague victim uncomfortably close to the camera is a particularly effective example.

The minor flaws within Faust arguably come from the source material, although Murnau can't be entirely exempt from criticism. A narrative change around an hour in to Faust's wooing of Gretchen (Camilla Horn) notably slows the pace through several drawn-out courtship scenes, although these are somewhat counteracted by some of the film's most humorous scenes between Mephisto and Gretchen's Aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert). Murnau for a time places his focus too heavily onto Gretchen, the much more interesting Faust and Mephisto becoming almost absent for a stretch. Whilst arguably a necessary decision to add weight to the film's climax, it's also a choice which undeniably provides Faust's least interesting segment.

Murnau's directorial craft and ability to garner unforgettable performances from his central cast consistently win through however. Nearly ninety years after its original release, Faust consistently stands tall as a technically and artistically impressive piece of cinema, as well as managing to entertain whilst telling an age-old story in a manner which both captivates and provokes thought.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Faust is released in the UK on Monday 18th August 2014

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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