The news certainly caught my attention. Masters of Cinema has upgraded its DVD release of Murnau’s Faust: a German Folktale (1926) to a shiny new dual-format edition. All the beauty of Faust, but in high-definition Blu-ray glory: temptation itself. The even better news is that this is a very beautiful disc indeed.
Faust has always been a feast for the eyes, from the cutting-edge 1920s special effects to the gorgeously, painterly compositions, and the Blu-ray transfer here more than does the film justice. Compared to the DVD, this is just far, far more filmic. There are rich blacks and sumptuous detail, making the most of crowd scenes and shadowy landscapes. On a biggish screen, you’ll notice a texture of soft grain, not sharp pixels. As was familiar practice in the 1920s, Murnau shot Faust with two cameras – one each for the domestic and export versions of the film. His favourite takes remained in the German print, and that is what has been restored here (the grandly gothic German intertitles remain, so you’ll have to turn the subtitles on). This is the best Faust you can get – screening this at home is a seriously impressive movie experience.
In fact, you may find hard it to believe that this film was made in 1926. But that has always been the magic of Faust. Murnau’s film is a vivid retelling of the legend, with indelible lead performances from Gosta Ekman as the doctor led astray and Emil Jannings as Mephisto, a spry devil clad in black satin with hooked eyebrows and a dangerously plausible smile. This is a classic Murnau: a struggle between the forces of good and evil, both human and celestial, set in a brutal world. The moment when the plague arrives in Faust’s home is filmed on two scales: a cloud of toxins emerge from Mephisto cape to smother the town, and far below in the fair, a dancer topples. Panic spreads faster and more chaotically than bacteria.
This plague is Murnau’s twist on his source material: Dr Faust is surrounded by death, and makes his first pact with the devil in return for a cure for the fatal plague – or more specifically for the status that comes with wielding the cure. As the film unfolds, Mephisto tempts Faust with more than medicine: youth, sex, travel, riches, romance, and a return to the idyllic world of his childhood. As Faust lives a life beyond his dreams, others pay the price, but the tragic fate of a young girl named Gretchen (Camilla Horn) may be the one thing that can rouse him from his idleness – with far-reaching consequences.
This is rousing stuff – and marvellously, the effects in this film, from the “magic carpet ride” to the scenes when Faust first makes his terrible deal with the devil, are up to telling such a bold story. Ekman’s lead performance is laden with makeup effects, but is nonetheless very moving – the thirtysomething actor played Faust as a very old man and as a youth too, when Mephisto restores his former body to him. All in all, this is a terribly beautiful film and deserves the hi-tech love that has been spent on it: there are glorious visions of luxury to tempt Faust from the right path, and haunting scenes with Gretchen that exploit the full emotional power in Expressionism.
The Masters of Cinema DVD came with three audio tracks: Timothy Brock majestic orchestral score, a harp track by Stan Ambrose (which I love) and a top-notch commentary by critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn. The new disc adds a fourth – a very supple piano soundtrack by Javier Pérez de Azpeitia on the Blu-ray disc. The other extras from the DVD release remain: the export version of the film, a comparison of that and the domestic print and a video piece by Tony Rayns. The Blu-ray disc also features a documentary on the film: The Language of Shadows. The booklet has been expanded to include more images and an archive essay on the film by none other than Eric Rohmer.
Faust is released in a dual-format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition by Eureka Video on the Masters of Cinema label on 18 August, RRP £19.99. You can order Faust from MovieMail here. Visit the Masters of Cinema website.