Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween.
I’ve already previously talked about how much expressionism has informed most of modern horror cinema, but let’s briefly just go over it. Germany’s expressionism style from the beginnings of their film industry had a way with shadowplay and overdramatics that really made for compelling genre storytelling as it was direct and blunt, with a very hard hit to the sensibilities of the audience and a clear communication of what the intention of each scene is. If they wanted you to laugh, their physical comedy would be the biggest thing you’d see, if you wanted to be scared, they’d make the shadows that are most scary the biggest on the screen and so on.
But it also could make for particularly compelling melodrama. The play with the amount that we see on the screen and what we don’t see gives a sort of gap for the audience to fill in, involving themselves into the story and investing themselves outright in the story. Murnau arguably had created the greatest melodrama put to celluloid in 1927, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which I dare you to watch and not feel compelled emotionally by the plight of the characters. However, I want to move backwards one year, right before Murnau left Germany to America, his very final film for his home country.
The 1926 film Faust is an incredibly interesting look into what makes expressionism as a style so moving and touching as it plays with both the elements of the style that make it genre filmmaking – primarily a horror film, but other genres get used in here as well – in addition to melodrama – as the tragedy of Doctor Faustus is a fable of old consideration in European culture.
It’s also pretty much one of the greatest possible toybox films ever put to screen, considering that Murnau, who was again in the midst of leaving UFA, probably just wanted to burn his skills out as much as possible (which, thankfully, he did not as his next two films were brilliant). He pulls out all of the possible stops that a film demands out of a filmmaker, making the production the most expensive that UFA had dealt with.
… at least until a little guy named Fritz Lang came around and demolished the company with his own masterpiece called Metropolis the next year.
But in the meantime, Faust… the most recognizable parable on deals with the Devil even if you don’t know that you know Faust. Doctor Faustus (Gosta Ekman) has been carrying the weight of his land’s plague in his hands, trying desperately to provide a cure for it and prevent any further dying at his hands. This pursuit leads him to extreme desperation that challenges his faith in God. Unknown to Faust, the plague is in fact a concoction of God and Mephisto (Emil Jannings giving a polar opposite performance from his work in The Last Laugh and fucking nailing it), who have a wager that Faust will never truly go astray from his humanity and fall into Mephisto’s clutches, regardless of the circumstances. With Faust at his weakest and most vulnerable, Mephisto approaches Faust to seduce him with the possibility of having license over life and death and, as a damned bonus, youth and all the great shit that makes you enjoy youth. Faust considers it and so the struggle truly begins.
I’ve always had a fascination with the tale of Goethe’s Faust, not just generally as a tragedy that easily tugs at heartstrings of guilt, shame, and mistakes, but as a compelling discussion of how far one goes towards his or her passions and how is he or she willing to deal with the consequences of this pursuit. Faust as a film, however, is interesting in that it dilutes much of these themes to a very streamlined tale that is easily consumptive to the film. Gone are much of the verbose prose of Goethe’s piece, as well as the entirely abstract philosophy preaching of the second half of the tale. The ending is fixed up and there’s even some Hollywood-ish inserts into the story, like UFA wanted to match the true titan they were currently competing against. It’s enough to understandably get under the skin of the real Goethe purists and while I do enjoy his work, thankfullu I’m not so much a purist that I would dismiss the movie (but I’m sure the band Kamelot would not be pleased to discover that I usually watch the silent film using their double album concept Epica and The Black Halo as my soundtrack to the film. They seem like Goethe purists.)
However, the true crown jewel of the film goes beyond its treatment of the tale of Faust and instead in the treatment of its spectacle. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, surrounding like Mephisto at the iconic opening scene where he wraps himself around the city and steals away the sunlight from the poor townspeople.
Let’s use that shot as an example. You goddamn well know it’s a model, you know it’s just a painted background that got progressed upon, you basically don’t see the strings to this puppetry but you know how it’s done and it’s there, similar to how we discussed with House. But this time it’s that the imagery is so chilling, so captivating that we don’t care… it doesn’t matter how it says what it’s saying, what matters is what it says and it says “Be afraid.”
This approach is the absolute pinnacle of German Expressionism by using the entirety of its production to present the effect of the image. That means large makeup on Jannings face as he portrays the Devil, that means giant worlds invented with the paint and the lens, that means larger than life actions…
Speaking of larger, the fact that the story – which is not bad but never really the forefront – is just incidental to the imagery that Murnau elicits, the globe-spanning that Mephisto induces in order to cater to Faust’s pleasures similar to the ambitious D.W. Griffith production Intolerance but without the fat, is just further proof in the end that actions will speak larger than words, especially in a visual medium like film. Even though the film gets pretty long by the end of it, Faust has never faltered as a hidden gem of visual artistry from one of the finest filmmakers ever to walk the earth.
I actually do take a moment to wonder whether or not Carl Theodor Dreyer or Ingmar Bergman were themselves influenced by Murnau’s work here, as the environment that the black plague-era villagers give off brings accessibility, both in the level of detail brough to build the village up and have it afflicted with all of these different effects Murnau gives them and with its familiarity to the audience after seeing The Seventh Seal or Ordet. But that’s just me thinking out loud.
In the end, the film historians don’t talk as much about Faust as they do the other films of Murnau and I personally find that a severe shame. Because dammit does Faust have a visual language that I personally feel is only surpassed in Murnau’s career by the brilliance of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. And that comes once more from Faust‘s complete dominance over the genre elements of Expressionism… providing a chilling mentality, a grand adventure, a moving tragedy, and a compelling drama before making us come around to leave the movie going
“Well damn, they don’t make it like that no more.”