Silent Sunday: Faust (1926)

There’s not many films I can say I’ve seen twice on the big screen, but this is one of them, which is kind of remarkable given its age… once at that shithole called the Encore that used to be on Devonshire St, the second as part of the Chauvel’s Murnau retrospective accompanying Shadow of the Vampire in 2001. Both times it was a mediocre 16mm print of the “bilingual” version, so this was the first time I’ve seen it in an actually good version, i.e. the restored German original… I recall talking to someone after the first viewing (or was it the second?), and he said something about the second half of the film not being as good as the first. Which at the time I don’t think I agreed with, but on this revisit it was hard not to; Gosta Ekman now strikes me as a comparatively colourless lead, better as the older Faust than the younger one, and the whole business with Gretchen is a bit meh. But holy hell, what goodness there is in the first half. Like MetropolisFaust was something of a financial sinkhole, but one where all the money spent showed on the screen; as FX extravaganzas go, this is some hard-to-beat stuff, even now the “magic carpet” flight is kind of astounding, as is the giant Mephisto looming over the town early in the film (all actual model work, too, obviously no computers involved). Emil Jannings, of course, is the real star of the show as Mephisto, flamboyant and hammy but so would you be if you were the devil. And yet it’s a bit of non-casting that perhaps helped the film best; the studio wanted Lilian Gish, who refused to be filmed by Murnau’s cameraman, but Murnau insisted on retaining the latter. Whatever Faust lost in internationally appealing star casting, it surely gained in visual strength. Maybe in the end it’s only half a great film, but that half is damned impressive.

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