Audio commentary - Written By Film Historian Peter Spooner and narrated by Russel Cawthorne
Force Entertainment/Force Entertainment .
R4 . B&W . 115 mins .
PG . PAL
The idea of selling our soul in exchange for eternal life, the love of someone unobtainable or for all the money on Earth is something we’ve all considered.
Eternal damnation at the hands of a pitchfork wielding devil in exchange for all the power and corruption we can muster? A done deal in my book. You’ll know about my arrangement when it happens, trust me. There will be thunder from the skies and pain and misery amongst all mankind, and small dogs will suffer torment beyond comprehension. But I’m getting ahead of myself...
Faust, an alchemist in a small town, is faced with a dilemma. The townsfolk are being struck down by a plague and they plead with him for a cure. Unable to uncover a means by any Earthly sciences or pray, he strikes a temporary deal with the Devil for the cure to the plague, but in doing so is shunned by the town for being in league with Satan.
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A distraught Faust is about to kill himself when Satan appears once again and offers him eternal life and the love of a beautiful woman in exchange for his soul. Weighing up the options - being dead and a virgin or being forever young and getting laid a lot - Faust does what any man would do and signs on the dotted line.
What he isn’t aware of is that Satan and the angel St. Michael have a small wager going; if Satan can corrupt Faust to the point that he will turn away from God and act only in evil and commit sin, then all mankind will be passed over to the control of the Devil so he can create a cheap slave labour force to rival Nike’s.
Undoubtedly a powerful and dramatic film, the opening commences on the front foot by invoking the sense of apocalypse that is eerily effective in its imagery, even by todays CGI standards. Furthermore, the stylish and creative expressionist set design (by Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig) is exemplary and stunningly composed in the camera by Carl Hoffman.
Still, there are some concessions from director F.W. Murnau which may or may not have been made for more mainstream audience demands as dictated by the studio. Primarily this takes the form of an unusually long (and considerably dull) comical love interlude which jars against all that has come before it and long outstays its welcome.
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However, any film which can have its flaws counted with a solitary digit is doing pretty well by any standards. Although, it would be wise to keep in mind that considering the vintage of the production, the fact that it is a pre-talky epic of a considerably macabre nature, the style of some of acting is even more overwrought in places than usual, but nothing unusually so to patrons of this era's film output.
As for the message, that of good overcoming evil, but only after great trial and tribulation, is expected, but you have to wonder what could have been if Murnau had wrapped up the story with the downbeat ending it requires, for that is probably the true nature of a corrupted man. But then again, not many mainstream films in history have had the chutzpah to show human nature as it really is without wimping out with an audience friendly denouement designed to lift the soul and restore faith in the human race.
At the end of the day, cinema shows us how we’d like to see ourselves, not how we really are. In a story (and film) such as Faust, that’s the opposite of how it should be.
The dark, gloomy expressionist design of the film is the first thing you’ll notice here, and it is incredibly simple yet capable of serving both the location requirements and creating a strong sense of shadow and mystery befitting such a tale. The full frame black and white picture, working within a compressed range of grays, serves this well, just don’t expect too much in the way of detail in the shadows, as they tend to be flat as a tack and more of a dark grey than a true black. You’ll have to bear in mind the age of the film, the need for the restorative work (there’s a fair bit of damage visible) and the sometimes wobbly/wavering nature of the print, but you’ll surely feel the quality of the picture sits comfortably with these issues and creates an atmosphere concordant with the grim content.
Being an old film made pre-audio, dialogue is serviced by title cards, but here it is also enhanced by the inclusion of a stirring orchestral score from the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, it is a little limited in its dynamics, but more than capably offers up the requisite emotional support to the story. An alternative to the offerings on disc is to switch off the sound entirely and enjoy the film as a silent piece, which can have its own eerie appeal late at night.
The single bonus is an audio commentary narrated by Russell Cawthorne, written by film historian Peter Spooner. There’s much to learn here, with many facts about the film and discussions on the era of filmmaking. However, (Spooner’s) bias is misjudged in his oversimplified and generalised comments about the dramatic superiority of Faust compared to modern films featuring CGI effects. Other than this, (and perhaps Cawthorne’s grating toffy accent with his George Donikian style of pronouncing names and places) the commentary is very good and a great way to watch the film for a better appreciation.
With its moments of the effectively macabre, this is a stylish and frankly entrancing film in many places. However, if you don’t have an affinity for films of this era you’ll be a little at sea with the settings, acting and sometimes laboured plotting. Stick with it and you’ll see many ideas, effects and examples of production design which do put many more contemporary films to shame (CGI driven or not).
The DVD is as good as we have a right to expect from a film produced in 1926, and even though the commentary is the only extra on disc it is still something film devotees may wish to add to their catalogue.