Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Faust (F.W. Murnau)

Emil Jannings plays Mephisto in Murnau's version of Faust, but he probably should have played the title character. He made his own pact with the devil a few years later. When Hitler came to power, Jannings chose to stay in Germany and act in Nazi propaganda films. Murnau was dead in a car accident by the time of Jannings' disgrace, but their last German collaboration is interesting, considering their respective fates (Murnau moved to the United States after this film's release) and the fate of Germany shortly thereafter. It's like a whole country made a deal with the devil, and Murnau's pre-Hitler silents, Faust and Nosferatu, seem like early, cautionary warnings of a fascistic, creeping menace infecting our better judgment and our hearts. I love the early German silent films, and the German New Wave of the late sixties and seventies, but I often wonder how many people I'm seeing onscreen either embraced the Third Reich or were raised by parents who did. German director Werner Herzog (whose mother fled the Nazis and settled in rural Bavaria and whose remake of Nosferatu is partially about what happened to Germany) put it another way when describing the explosion of creative talent in sixties and seventies German film: "We're a group of people with no fathers, only grandfathers." Murnau was one of the grandfathers he cited, a poetic visionary who was as comfortable pushing the boundaries of visual effects as he was exploring the shifting emotional routes of the human face. His movies are full of both human fantasy and experience, and he's still among only a handful of directors comfortable with both.

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