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March 30, 2007
Still from Faust
Still from Faust. Emil Jannings as Mephisto.
In 1926 Murnau was finally given the chance to make Faust a project he had been interested in for some time probably even before his production of Tartuffe which was designed by the studio under Pommer’s hand as a quick money making exercise. The Eureka 2006 double DVD edition of Faust is a very valuable document. There is a very useful interview for 35 minutes with Tony Rayns who is a highly respected and well informed critic. The interview offers many insights although I would question his analysis about the reasons for the financial crisis besetting UFA for which he provided only a limited analysis. On other issues his analysis was frequently refreshing he challenged the dominant notion that the film was in any sense ‘expressionist’. It clearly isn’t: rather, Rayns provides an explanation arguing that as a graduate Max Rheinhardt’s dramatic school Murnau was very aware of the power of lighting within the mise en scene. Rayns notes too that Murnau is best considered as more of a metteur en scene than an auteur.
Below the UFA finacial situation is contextualise, some comments on the production are included and a some thoughts contextualising the film in relation to the contemporary national identity crisis and the narration of nation are considered.
The UFA Finances
Erich Pommer had left UFA in the early months of 1926 at a time when the German film industry in general was beginning to struggle to survive. UFA under Pommer as head of production had been forced to reinvent its commercial strategy after the Dawes plan had stabilised the Weimar currency and it could no longer invest on borrowed money which became devalued through hyperinflation. Hollywood was beginning to gain a larger share of the German domestic market and UFA was finding difficulty in competing. Hollywood of course had the advantage of being able to amortise its most successful films very rapidly in its large domestic market.
After 1923 Pommer had already been strongly promoting the growth of Cinema Europe in which European cinemas could co-operate more fully on joint productions, marketing and exhibition to compete with the Hollywood machine but this never really got off the ground. Tartuffe made by Murnau prior to the start of Faust was one such enterprise which was reasonably successful in France. Faust along with Metropolis were the contemporary attempts at producing blockbusters which had the underlying aim of breaking into the American domestic market as a response to the growing influence of Hollywood in Germany . This was an aim which never came to fruition. Metropolis went way over budget and failed to take off with domestic audiences and ran into problems in America. Faust also ran over budget and was more of a success than Metropolis however it didn’t take the American market by storm as was hoped.
Faust as Blockbuster
From its inception Faust was conceived of as a blockbuster. Originally the film was to have all the ingredients vital to success in an international market. There were to be state of the art special effects, leading international cast and a story which had wide appeal. Whilst calling the film Faust would have had a strong appeal to the more middle class educated domestic audiences in Germany who would have been thinking of Goethe’s Faust, an appeal which would have resonances in art house audiences across Europe and America the narrative was rather different. Rayns equates it with Christopher Marlowe’s Faust as having the strongest underlying influence, a play designed for Elizabethan audiences which were mixed appreciating elements of knockabout farce, an element which was transferred to Murnau’s production.
Higher and more complex issues were deliberately excluded from the play with the original screenplay being rewritten from ideas by Karl Mayer who Murnau usually relied upon by another writer Hans Kyser to popularise it.
In terms of the leading actors Emil Jannings was by then a natural first choice with Conrad Veidt having already left Germany for Hollywood. Jannings was hugely popular with German audiences and his performance in Faust is excellent. For a leading lady Lillian Gish was intended to fulfil the role and she did get as far as the UFA studios however she wasn’t allowed to have her choice of cinematographer. She had wanted top Hollywood cinematographer Charles Rosher however Murnau wisely refused to be parted from Hoffman. But Gish pulled out of the venture. The role of Gretchen then went to the other extreme: instead of an international superstar they employed an inexperienced unknown in Camilla Horn who nevertheless made an excellent job of youthful naivety to fallen young woman. Nevertheless Faust still had two leading Swedish actors to maintain its international ambitions.
Costume design was by Robert Herlth and set design was by Walter Rohrig both amongst the best in their profession.
The film itself fell far short of the tragic ending which had been the staple of the original myth and its handling by great exponents such as Marlowe and Goethe. The ending was one of redemption and gave hope of the afterlife through love. This was the type of feelgood ending which seem to be required of blockbusters and it is a significant flaw in the film.
The critical reception wasn’t by any means universal praise. It was considered as a vulgarisation of the great Manichean conflict between good and evil and the accompanying booklet to the DVD quotes Ernest Lindgren once a curator of Britain’s National Film Archive:
The metaphysical conflict between good and evil was reduced to a sentimental love story.
Karacauer was also scathing arguing that the film ‘misrepresented, even ignored, all significant motifs in its subject matter.’
These criticisms can be largely upheld in terms of the content, which is sharply counterpoised to the artistry in the direction, camerawork and set design. In many ways the film is a fine example of how commercialism tends to subvert and create travesties in meaningful works of art in order to achieve popular appeal at the box office. However arguably there is something raised at the deeper level of nation as narration’ which I explore slightly in the concluding comments.
The essay with the DVD tries to put an unconvincing gloss on these rapier-like critiques:
“If everyone held those views we wouldn’t be watching this fully restored version of the film today” (Spooner p 22).
This is unconvincing in itself. There are many reasons for watching the film. This recently restored German version taken from the original German domestic negative is nothing short of excellent quality. The camerawork, direction and set design is often superb and Jannings’ jaunty performance is very witty in all senses of the term. The Eureka DVD also offers another disc with the export copy of the negative which aficionados the opportunity to compare prints and contemporary representations. Reading the film through the lens of exploring a fractured nationhood may have more rewarding outcomes.
In terms of its success at the box-office and general audience reception I currently have no available information. By comparison it is well known that Metropolis UFAs other great blockbuster attempt to scale the marketplace was a commercial flop. Ironically and despite their flaws, both films are probably seen by a larger global audience now than at the time of their release. Perhaps quality will out in the end.
As a film which says something useful about the state of the German National psyche and sense of identity it is hard to be precise the power of culture lies in its resonances and at a more unconscious level than things which can be easily measured.
The Narrating of the Nation
The film can certainly be seen as a form of heritage industry and as having recourse to myths and stories of a ‘golden past’ which cultural products often have recourse to at a time of national crisis. Points made by critics such as Homi Bhabha and Dominic Anderson. Certainly the film fits with the penchant for Medievalism which was frequently represented at the time not least in many of the films by Lang. It may be reasonable to understand the strongly marked theme of redemption as one which acted allegorically for a Germany keen in the mid twenties to outgrow the remnants of its international pariah status in the world as a result of its role in triggering the First World War. It can also be seen as part of what Bhabha highlights as a will to nationhood which is brought to bear in Renan’s comments about a nation’s existence being a ‘daily plebiscite’. Bhabha goes on to discuss that Renan’s discussions of nationhood focusing on the will:
…is the site of a strange forgetting of the history of a nation’s past: the violence involved in establishing a nation’s writ’ (Bhabha, 1990 p 310)
The Medievalism of early to mid Weimar cinema might well be legitimately perceived as a form of ‘forgetting’ and a semi-unconscious attempt to recast and rewrite the history of ‘nation’ usually solidified around a linear time of modernity. Ironically Weimar cinema is celebrated for using the most advanced media forms of the early to mid 20th century to achieve this end. That both Gretchen and Faust become outcasts to their communities and both desire to be recast within community with Faust specifically desiring to return Heim from the liminal mountain-top space which the psychoanalyst Lefort describes as the unbearable ordeal of the collapse of uncertainty (cited Bhabha 1990, p 300) or home by extension understands his position as uncanny an situation in which Gretchen also finds herself as her social world in the house after her return from the stocks is deliberately represented as unheimlich.
Perhaps the deliberate popularisation of Faust can be understood as an important if unconscious attempt to deal with the ambivalence of ‘nation as narration’. The appeal of the ending to a metaphysical universal signifier within Christian nations can be legitimately read as being a cultural appeal beyond the obvious level of the corny ending.
Overall Faust is a film which utilises the links with Goethe as well as a national myth which existed in the Mediaeval period to generate a variegated national and international audience which would also be attracted by the blockbuster like attention to production quality and high profile marketing. Superficially the storyline is weak however the net effect of the film considered in its postwar German context may usefully be read in the context of rewriting nationhood in the light of recent events an act of both forgetting and recasting.
Bhabha, Homi: ‘DissemiNation’, Bhabha, Homi ed. 1990.Nation and Narration. London Routledge
Spooner Peter. DVD Booklet Eureka Video 2006
After a search of up to page 25 of Google's search I found very little of high quality which was well referenced and available. There were two highly specialised academic article, but most entries were brief reviews and commercial DVD sellers.
Article by Michael Koller on Murnau's Faust on Senses of Cinema Site
A useful reviews page with links to recent books on Expressionism and Murnau
A useful synopsis of the work of set designer Walter Rohrig which includes an extract of an essay by early film historian and critic Paul Rotha on Rohrig:
For the in depth researcher a link to a documentary interview with the actress Camilla Horn who plays Gretchen:
Link to online article by Janet Bergstrom on Sexuality at a Loss the Films of F. W. Murnau. This is a JStor article and requires your library to be a subscriber: