- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

The invaluable movie-history compilation “Cinema Europe” devotes segments to a trio of ambitious spectacles that in certain respects summarize the artistry of the silent-film period: Abel Gance’s “Napoleon,” Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and F.W. Murnau’s “Faust.”

Kevin Brownlow, the English filmmaker and historian who co-produced “Cinema Europe,” had earlier devoted decades to a restoration of “Napoleon.” This effort culminated in a grand international revival in the early 1980s. Come to think of it, shouldn’t plans be under way for a 25th anniversary celebration of that rediscovery, which commenced at the Telluride Film Festival in September 1979?

“Metropolis” returned in a restored version last year, showcased at both the National Gallery of Art and the American Film Institute Theater. Now the National Gallery will complete the set with a free showing of “Faust” at 3 p.m. today in the auditorium of the East Building. If the timing is inconvenient, the movie also is available in a handsome DVD version from Kino Video, which distributes other Murnau classics: “Nosferatu,” “The Last Laugh” and “Tabu.”

The National Gallery showing, co-sponsored by the Embassy of Switzerland and the Goethe Institute of Washington, is one of the film selections intended to augment a current exhibition devoted to the German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a Murnau contemporary.

“Faust” was the swan song of Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe as a major asset of the German film industry. (The surname Murnau was borrowed from a Bavarian town that was favored as a holiday resort of artists in the years before World War I.) He already had signed a contract with William Fox in Hollywood when “Faust” began production in the fall of 1925, but the film consortium UFA was willing to indulge a blowout. A previous Murnau film, “The Last Laugh,” had been a prestigious international success in 1924. Prodigals might elect to return. Murnau didn’t because a fatal auto accident in Santa Monica, Calif., ended his life in 1931, at age 42.

During his exile, Murnau managed to complete a pair of classics, “Sunrise” and “Tabu,” bridging the transitional period from silents to talkies. He gave Fox an immediate prestige production in “Sunrise,” singled out for “artistic quality of production” at the first Academy Awards ceremony. The category was abandoned thereafter, probably a bad idea, because it might have proved farsighted to continue differentiating between a best “commercial” picture and a best “art” picture. Nevertheless, “Sunrise” remains such an astonishing and elevated example of the tear-jerker that it’s satisfying to think of it as a one-of-a-kind Oscar winner.

Murnau’s death precluded an association with Paramount, which was about to become a congenial working environment for another German runaway, Ernst Lubitsch. Murnau never acquired a distinctive genre specialty, unlike Lubitsch with romantic farce or Fritz Lang later with thrillers. The intriguing thing about Murnau’s shortened career is that it seems to reflect a persistent desire for stylistic versatility, experimentation and command across a range of material.

During the decade in which Murnau was a prominent figure, that range began with a resourceful horror thriller, “Nosferatu,” derived from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and concluded with a Tahitian idyll, “Tabu,” salvaged from an ill-advised collaboration with the documentary director Robert Flaherty. In each case, Murnau excelled at using real locations with an atmospheric flair and intensity that seemed more theatrical than naturalistic.

Educated in art history and literature at the University of Heidelberg, Murnau had served in the Germany infantry and air corps during World War I. He entered the professional theater as an assistant to Max Reinhardt in 1919. He may have recognized the movies as a more flexible means of creating theatrical spectacle. For a time, the medium did seem less dependent on the spoken word.

In freely adapting the Goethe “Faust” plays, Murnau rallied the designers and technicians at UFA to shoot the works on medieval and demonic stylization, and the movie remains an impressive achievement of the monumental and flamboyant kind. The polemical stakes are high from the outset. An angel, accorded the high ground in all two-shots, agrees to a wager with Satan: If the soul of the elderly sage and alchemist Faust is lost, the Earth will be the devil’s playground for eternity. The ensuing scenario depicts how Faust, played by the Swedish actor Gosta Ekman, slips into the treacherous clutches of Mephisto, embodied with a gargantuan comic emphasis by Emil Jannings, who seems to leaven the basic malice with suggestions of a kind of Kabuki version of Sancho Panza and Leporello.

The foreboding that dominates the early sequences gives way to a certain nuttiness when Mephisto begins pimping for the rejuvenated Faust, who is not very impressive in his initial incarnation. As a matter of fact, the bearded and heavily robed Faust is such a triumph of makeup, costuming and backlighting that one is reminded of Greta Garbo’s famous complaint when Jean Marais was liberated from his mask in Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bete”: “Give me back my Beast.” A similar moan is justified when the old Faust looks in a mirror and glimpses his youthful self.

Nevertheless, Gosta Ekman reacquires some gravity (and loses considerable lip gloss) in the concluding sequences, which depict the ordeal of Gretchen, the young woman Faust has seduced and abandoned. It’s a close call for redemption, but “Faust” modulates effectively to pathos as Gretchen suffers and Faust returns to ask her forgiveness. Murnau had a curious facility for shifting moods in the course of a movie.

Murnau had wanted Lillian Gish as Gretchen, a casting coup that would have completed an international quartet. The French character actress Yvette Guilbert plays Gretchen’s aunt Marthe, who becomes the object of Mephisto’s romantic trifling. Miss Gish had a deal-making condition: She demanded her favorite cinematographer, Charles Rosher. Murnau stuck with an accomplished German colleague, Carl Hoffman, but Rosher did travel to Berlin to observe the production as preparation for his work as director of photography on “Sunrise.”

An unknown named Camilla Horn became the replacement Gretchen, and she’s a haunting figure. She’s also a fearless director’s instrument, one gathers, especially when she does crushing collapses onto a chair and the pavement of a cathedral. When Gretchen is wandering in a snowstorm with her illegitimate babe, you’ll realize why Murnau thought of Miss Gish: She set the pattern for similar snowbound desolation in D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” about five years earlier. Camilla Horn reflects a youthful ardor that serves the movie very well as time goes by. You still can believe that something precious is at stake when this Gretchen goes to the stake.

TITLE: “Faust: A German Folk Saga”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Made in Germany in 1925-26, long before the advent of a rating system; sustained ominous stylization; occasional violent episodes; fleeting nudity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by F.W. Murnau. Screenplay by Hans Kyser, freely adapted from the plays of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Cinematography by Carl Hoffmann. Art direction by Robert Herlth and Walter Roehrig

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

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