F.W. Murnau should be a name familiar to everyone. Sadly this is not the case so some explanation should be given as to his importance. He was one of the key instigators of the German expressionist movement, a group of films that not only visually defy the time in which they were made but are also almost always beautiful to look at. Faust: A German Folk Tale is a fantastic example of this sort of film-making and can be seen as one of the genres biggest and best films. Taking Goethe’s tale of the selling of one’s soul to the Devil, Murnau carves the work down into its most basic form of narrative, meaning the story works perfectly on screen. We follow the character of Faust who becomes the subject of a wager between Mephisto (supposedly the Devil or a servant of the Devil) and an angel who believes the character of Faust won’t succumb to the corruption of the soul on offer to him. We then watch as Faust is turned back into the young man he once was a taster of what Mephisto has on offer and the story gradually shows us in the most poetic ways possible, using Faust’s innocent passion of wanting to cure a plague, Faust renouncing God.
Moving away from the narrative, some discussion on the visuals is obligatory for such a groundbreaking film. The film itself is from 1926 and yet it manages to show the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding over the world, the Devil looming over a town and an ascension to Heaven. All of these not only look convincing but also beautiful in a way that computer-generated effects simply can’t do these days. When reading about the shot of the Horsemen and how it was achieved, a sense of admiration can overcome the viewer to the point of utter joy when we hear of the cameraman rigging up the models in his shed. With this DVD, reading up on the film itself is not as difficult as it would be usually which leads us nicely on to the DVD itself.
The release of it through the Masters of Cinema range by Eureka is a sheer stroke of genius. In the set, we get the initial export print of the film which was the one mostly seen around the world but Murnau used to shoot each scene of his quite a few times and then make two separate films, one for the German audience (which is arguably better) and the export version. For the first time, both versions here are contained and the transfer on both of them is beautifully clean and clear. Not only do we have two different versions of the film, we also have two separate scores.
Being a silent film, these will obviously be new recordings with the original sound having been provided by musicians but having a rather modern take on the music is exhilarating for someone who loves their film scores. We have the Timothy Brock one, which is the typical sort of orchestral silent film score and is all well and good but my personal choice to watch it would be to watch the German domestic version with the new harp score by Stan Ambrose. It’s a 100 minute long harp improvisation to the film and it’s breathtaking not only its dynamics but also in how much it fits the film perfectly in tone, pace and texture. We also get two audio commentaries by knowledgeable critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn and two separate documentaries adding up to over three hours of extras.
If you’re looking for a new film to watch, This release of Faust comes thoroughly recommend. It’s not the newest release by Masters of Cinema but it’s easily one of their best and they’ve done F.W. Murnau proud with this massive release that has clearly had a lot of time and affection gone in to.