F.W. Murnau’s version of Goethe’s classic tale (albeit largely slanted towards Christopher Marlowe’s version as well) was his last German film, and has had something of a chequered history. It was filmed in two versions, one for domestic German release, and another for international release. The international version was shot from a position to the left of the German camera, which meant it didn’t have the most optimum angles, and sometimes used alternate takes from the German version.
This 1080p release includes both versions, and there are notable differences. Aside from the different angles and different takes, some scenes are edited together differently, and the international version often uses inferior effects shots to the German version. The international version’s intertitles are also more extensive and a little patronising – for example, in the opening scene with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the international version tells us who they are, rather unnecessarily, where the German doesn’t. Long story short, the German version is superior – but had been thought lost for 70 years. This release sees it restored, and it’s difficult to see why anyone would re-watch the international version after viewing the German cut.
The film is certainly surreal, fitting in very nicely with the wave of Expressionist films produced during the era, and the cast are all memorable, especially Emil Jannings as Mephisto. (Cast member William Dietrich would later become a Hollywood director who’d make his own Faust version, The Devil And Daniel Webster). By turns filled with dread and wonder, Faust looks the way Jacobean drama feels. The This is no easy watch, as Murnau, most of all Expressionist directors, loved the bleakness of light and shadow, and as a result much of the film is visually dark. The whole thing is a tragedy too, so the darkness extends into the mood and the whole tone of the film. The performances are all noteworthy too.
Sadly it will probably bore modern audiences, but if you’re a fan of the genre or the era, this is well worth seeing.
The soundtrack has an option to have either an orchestral or all-harp score, and the orchestral is by far the better option. The new transfer is very good, but some of the shots are from damaged sources, so it’s not as crisp as, say, Frau Im Mond from the same label. The German version includes a fascinating commentary from film historians, and the set also includes two booklets (20 and 40 pages, which sadly weren’t included with the review screener).
Verdict: A worthy piece of film history, and a real treat for fans of folklore, horror, or Expressionist films. Recommended. 9/10
David A. McIntee