Faust (1926) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
An alchemist named Faust (Gösta Ekman) is struggling with his faith amidst a devastating plague when a demon named Mephisto (Emil Jannings), on a challenge from the Archangels, offers him the power to cure and the gift of youth...in exchange for his soul. (From Kino Lorber’s official synopsis)
In the years following the international success of Nosferatu: The Symphony of the Night (1922), German expressionist F.W. Murnau had the clout to take over directing duties on an adaptation of playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s version of the Satanic tragedy of Faust (1926). Murnau’s influence ballooned the production’s budget and scope to then unheard of levels (...until the next year, when fellow German expressionist Fritz Lang made Metropolis) and he was given the freedom to experiment with new filmmaking techniques that are still utilized to this day. The composite shots and scale models don’t necessarily compare to the fidelity of an expensive computer-generated effect, but fit Murnau’s universe beautifully and honestly resemble similar analogue effects that would appear much later in the 20th century.
Beyond its daunting technical achievements, Faust is a hauntingly evocative expressionistic feature, stylistically outpacing even Nosferatu. It begins with a version of the pre-Goethe Faustian folktale. Out of blackness, ghoulish skeleton warriors astride rotting horses ride to the gates of heaven with the demon Mephisto at their front. An Archangel emerges from light and smoke and challenges the demon for the soul of a bearded alchemist named Faust. After agreeing to the wager, Mephisto’s cloaked figure returns to Earth and looms large over a model version of the town as he unleashes a black smoke that represents the coming plague. In the ensuing chaos, terrifying masked figures burn dead bodies, religious fervor spreads as blazing fires cast the black shadows of crosses against stark white walls. Then, as Mephisto takes a human form, the film becomes more narratively-driven. Though more dramatically satisfying and still quite exquisitely staged on unabashedly impressionistic sets (not to mention the joys of Emil Jannings’ queeny portrayal of Mephisto), these scenes lose the visceral power of the more abstract and nightmarish introduction. The film does lose a bit of its appeal in this respect; however, similarly ambitious images are not usually too far behind, such as the elaborate wedding banquet Faust and Mephisto interrupt with a parade of dancers and elephants (clearly an inspiration for the “Prince Ali” sequence in Disney’s Aladdin). And, even as it flounders in half-baked romantic comedy, Faust has fundamental power in its images.
Faust was Murnau’s final German film before he relocated to Hollywood, where he would make Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), two ‘lost’ films, 4 Devils (his first and only sound film, 1928) and City Girl (1930), and Tabu (1931), before dying in a car accident at the age of 42.
Faust was first released on Blu-ray by Eureka Films in the UK as part of their Masters of Cinema line. Similar to that release, as well as their Phantom of the Opera BD, Kino has included two versions of Faust on this North American Blu-ray debut. First up is the 1997 ‘restored cut’ of the original 1926 German version. This 1.33:1, 1080p transfer was reportedly sourced from the same Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung 35mm restoration as the Eureka release, but there are some differences in the mastering processes*. Faust is a nearly 90 year old movie, so, of course, this transfer shows signs of significant print damage. Most of this is represented by pulsing (especially between cuts/reels), frame shiver, prevalent grain, and a number of fine scratches. A handful of sequences exhibit water/mold damage, but fewer than you’d suspect from a print this old. Very few of these artifacts are distracting, aside from what appears to be unintended frame rate speed-up (a common issue for hand-cranked motion pictures). According to specs (and just about every home video release available), Faust is a true black & white feature. Murnau and cinematographer Carl Hoffman did not tint or paint the film like many other silent features of the era. The restoration carefully maintains Murnau’s intended look, so the black & white images are presented quite starkly, with very little medium grey or gradations. Despite the grain, artifacts, and inherently soft qualities of some of the footage, details are nicely supported by the high contrast, deep blacks, and bursting whites. The quality of the fine textures can even rival similar restorations of much newer black & white features and all without notable over-sharpening effects. The only problem is that the English subtitles can be very difficult to read when placed over the German intertitles.
The second cut, the Ufa Studios 1930 export version, which has been relegated to a 480p DVD disc. Eureka’s release included the same alternate cut in 1080p, but it seems that it was an upconvert of the same SD transfer. It was produced for video in 1995 by David Shepherd of Film Preservation Associates. It was pieced together with ‘bits of different negatives’ from different cuts of the film and runs about 115 minutes, as opposed to the 106-minute restored cut and features English language intertitles. The footage is definitely in rougher shape, though the print damage is still pretty minimal for a 90-year-old feature. Contrast levels are weak and digital artifacts – combing effects in particular – create problems for overall detail. Still, this is a stronger image than the comparable Phantom of the Opera extended cut.
*I do not have access to the Eureka disc, so readers that want to compare the two versions back-to-back should see DVDBeaver.com’s comparison here.
The main movie includes two audio options – a piano score by Javier Pérez de Azpeitia adapted from the 1926 orchestral arrangement by Paul Hensel and an orchestral score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which was compiled from historic photoplay music. Both tracks are presented in uncompressed LPCM stereo sound. As seems to be the case for many silent films, there is no consensus on an ‘official’ score, so the choice is a matter of taste. The orchestral score is the more complex and full-bodied track, obviously. The instrumentations are natural and warm without the common artifacts of digitally sampled strings. On the other hand, the less boisterous piano score seems much closer to the material. Tonally, the cues match the on-screen sequences, from dramatic to funny to deeply unsettling. Note that the Eureka MOC Blu-ray also included a harp score from Stan Ambrose.
The export cut includes only one audio option – a symphonic orchestration from composer Timothy Brock, performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. It’s too bad this music is reserved for the inferior SD print, because it is spectacularly Wagner-esque.
The Language of Shadows: Faust (53:00, SD) – This extensive retrospective documentary by Luciano Berriatúa previously appeared on Kino’s DVD as well as Eureka’s BD. This isn’t a particularly slick featurette, but it does get right down to business by including behind-the-scenes photographs, comparisons of the multiple takes/variations on certain scenes (some of which were used for different release cuts of the film), outtakes, casting stories, narrative notes, on-camera interviews with the relatives of cast & crew members, production illustrations, and breakdowns of some of the groundbreaking special effects.
Marguerite and Faust: Screen Tests (11:50, HD) – Test footage of Ernst Lubitsch's abandoned production Marguerite and Faust, preserved here in HD by the Library of Congress.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.