Ambivalence, even cynicism, is a touchstone of F.W. Murnau’s filmography, and it typifies his adaptation of Faust. The film begins with an archangel’s heavenly glow illuminating the monstrous, looming form of Mephisto (Emil Jannings), embodying the notion that shadow cannot exist without light. Murnau tacitly intimates that the Devil only exists with the blessing of God, an argument only strengthened by the subsequent bet into which the angel eagerly enters with the demon over the soul of a man. The man, of course, is Faust (Gösta Ekman), an alchemist in a nearby village trying everything to alleviate the toll that the bubonic plague is taking on the townspeople.
Jannings, operatic ham that he was, never fails to play up Mephisto’s conniving evil, but the context of the plague allows the viewer to sympathize with Faust for being willing to sell his soul for, initially, the chance to combat death. If neither prayer nor science can prevent the plague from wreaking havoc, what more could the Devil do to make things worse? This revisionist angle recasts Faust from a vain genius to a tragic hero, establishing the good intentions behind his ambition before debasing them with his exposure to reinvigorated youth and absolute power.
From there, the film follows much the same path as Goethe’s play, swiftly plunging Faust into a life of hedonism and madness. But at this point the narrative details give way to the invention of Murnau’s filmmaking, which rates with Sunrise as the director’s greatest technical achievement. The early shot of Mephisto blotting out the moon over Faust’s village, spreading his black cape until it becomes the sky, is unnervingly scary. A downward-moving crane shot that traverses the floors of a massive palace prefigures the shot in Citizen Kane that rises up through the theater. Less grandiose shots offer equally revelatory demonstrations of the director’s skill. Murnau’s compositions regularly favor busy backgrounds that complement simplified, utilitarian foregrounds, maintaining the epic scale of the film while ensuring that the characters and story don’t get consumed by the frame.
Though Murnau was hardly the first director to realize the potential of cinema, he was, along with Eisenstein, one of the first filmmakers to see the format completely outside its relationship to previous art forms. The director uses the same kind of Expressionist sets that defined German cinema of the 1920s, but where earlier films deliberately called attention to Expressionism’s two-dimensional artificiality as reflections of characters’ tormented psyches, Faust emphasizes three-dimensional depth. In the process, the film shifts the conflicts of Expressionism from internal to external, orienting the horror and madness as projected onto the characters rather than from them.
It’s telling that the only time a proscenium is fully invoked in the film is when Mephisto leans over a bed frame where Faust takes his latest conquest, the demon giggling maniacally as he draws his cape around them like a stage curtain. In a single shot, Murnau reveals the story of Faust as not a morality play of man’s struggle between good and evil, but a mere puppet show by bored gods looking for entertainment.
Kino Lorber never touches up its silent acquisitions too much, leaving numerous scratches and other print damage intact so as to not leave these films looking too waxy. But even compared to their previous DVD restoration of Faust, this transfer looks superb, with sharper definition and almost no instances of washed-out frames that have pervaded previous video iterations. Comparisons between the two suggest that the region-B Masters of Cinema release has a bit more detail, but Kino’s disc is nonetheless free of any errors not endemic to surviving prints and amply showcases the film’s beauty. The disc also comes with two lossless stereo tracks, one of a piano score by Javier Pérez de Azpeitia that adapts the original 1926 arrangement, the other a more recently commissioned soundtrack by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
The Blu-ray comes with "The Language of Shadows," a 53-minute documentary devoted to the film that digs up archival interviews and speaks to surviving relatives to get a portrait of the production, from its set design to how Murnau dictatorially shaped Camilla Horn’s performance as Faust’s innocent love, Gretchen. The package also includes screen tests from an abandoned Lubitsch production of Faust, as well as a DVD that contains an alternate cut of the film.
F.W. Murnau’s epic rates as one of the master’s finest works, and Kino’s Blu-ray highlights the intricate precision behind its huge scale.