Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Royal Festival Hall - Faust (1926)

The latest stage in my Murnau education took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall where I watched his 1926 classic, Faust, accompanied by a splendid new score composed by Aphrodite Raickopoulou . This was superbly performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch and ably supported with some jaw-dropping piano improvisations from Gabriela Montero.

It was an evening that lifted the spirits and sent the audience away on a high…we didn’t trash the seats but we smiled our way home into the night, chattering and tweeting our satisfaction. Just what is it about silent films and live performance?

Having watched a good few silent films with live music this was my first full-blown orchestra and in the voluminous setting of the South Bank’s biggest venue, the big band worked exceptionally well. The audience was, how shall I put this, my friends … rather more… sartorially focused than your usual silent gig; more of a concert crowd perhaps?

But, even though the wife and I felt slightly under-dressed, it was a warm, friendly and highly-appreciative gathering.

The screening was introduced by Hugh Grant, a surprising choice perhaps (and one that helped lure my Catherine out on a Monday night) but one quickly explained by the fact that he’s a mate of Aphrodite’s as well as a fan of her music. He gave a typically bumbling yet humorous introduction, revealing a few fun wiki-facts on Murnau, Jannings’ unfortunate later choices of Nazi propaganda work and embarrassing the allegedly “flakey Julia on the cor anglais….”

There was also a round of applause, which I think I started, when Mr Grant made a reference to the “faustian pact” of Prime Minister David Cameron with former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson…

Apparently delighted that Aphrodite had at last been able to put out this music having “gone on about it for years”, he was gracious enough to reveal his own admiration after repeat viewings of the film.

I hadn’t seen the film before and, having viewed an excellent production of Marlowe’s play at The Globe Theatre last year, it was interesting to compare Murnau’s 1926 version of the legend. Mr Grant’s wiki-research had revealed that the story was based on a medieval alchemist who had tried to find a cure for the plague only to be accused of selling his soul…

Gösta Ekman played this Faust and gives an impressive performance as the man who surrenders all to ambition even if his road to Hell is initially paved with the good intention of curing the plague.

At the start, Faust is an old man but he reverts to his pretty youth for much of the film – an androgynous figure who’s layers of make-up reflect his misguided attempt to conceal his real self. It’s hard to feel sympathy for what looks like a refuge from Bolan or Bowie’s glam backing band but we do…there but for the grace of God…

Emil Jannings, who I last saw as the doorman in The Last Laugh – puffed out with pride one minute, literally diminished by failure the next - gives another extraordinary turn as Mephisto.

What a range he had, physically imposing and powerful yet capable of these quicksilver changes in stature and poise…all matched by his hugely expressive face: an operatic performance in all but name, complete with knowing laughs and grand gestures.

Mephisto sets the story in motion by betting the guardian angel that he can lure Faust’s soul away from God.

This he does with much alacrity sending a pestilence to Faust’s town and forcing the old man to risk his soul for a day’s “trial” of demonic power. He hopes to use this for good but he cannot cure those protected by crosses and his rejected by the god-fearing villagers.

Mephisto turns this to his advantage by offering Faust his youth and the old man buys it, setting off on a series of selfish adventures with his cunning “servant”.

But then Faust is thrown off course as he comes across the beauteous Gretchen and falls for the most innocent soul in the village.

Camilla Horn got the part of Gretchen that had been intended for Lillian Gish, the latter couldn’t make it and so Horn undertook not only her first film but also first full acting role (although her legs had been in a previous Murnau film, according to Hugh…).

She acts very well, in spite of what looks like a longer version of the hairpiece worn by Janet Gaynor in Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise. It matters not, she’s great “very beautiful with a natural open smile” said Catherine and is particularly moving during the later scenes as Mephisto’s plan to ruin it all begins to come to fruition.

She makes the horror and the tragedy believable and her acting is a naturalistic counter weight to the pantomime villainy of Jannings and the foolishness of Faust. She’s the hero and not him.

The outline of the Faust story is familiar to most and quite clearly it isn’t going to end that well but Murnau moves the narrative in characteristically forceful manner towards the tragic denouement.

Yet, this is not quite the Faust that I saw in The Globe and there is a twist in the tale.

As you’d expect Faust is beautifully photographed by Murnau’s cinematographer Carl Hoffman, a major figure in expressionist cinema who also worked on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The set design from Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig, is also amazing, another Murnau film shot entirely in studio?

The music was simply superb - very moving - and the Philharmonia Orchestra filled the huge space of the hall to the brim. This was maybe even louder than the Utley/Gregory Joan of Arc I saw last year and really suited what is an operatic and mightily expressive story.

It was another powerful example of the importance of music to silent film and the ways in which it can revitalise the creative existence of the latter bringing out new flavours, emphasising existing impressions and helping to re-connect audiences with the creative spirit of the film makers.

Music and Murnau worked in perfect tandem and to loud, sustained acclaim.

The Kino and Masters of Cinema Faust are available from Amazons all over, but I think I’ll wait until a version is available featuring this soundtrack. There's a sample here on YouTube.

Don't miss it if you get the chance to experience it live, clear and loud!

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