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Faust und
die
Frau


Every so often I get a press release from Eureka! Entertainment about their Masters of Cinema series and I usually ignore it. Oh, they have released some superb films – stone cold classics all – in fine versions. But I rarely watch classic films. There’s only so many hours in the day, even fewer when you’ve dealt with things like day-jobs and family and monthly blogs, and I have to judge what I’m going to watch. Most of the time it’s going to be some piece of microbudget indie cinema at the cutting edge of cult movieness but I do watch old classics occasionally, especially if I have never seen them before. So when I got a press release saying that Eureka were releasing Fritz Lang’s rarely seen 1929 science fiction epic Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) on DVD/Bluray I immediately blagged a screener. To my delight, the Eureka! guys threw in a second disc of another silent German classic, FW Murnau’s Faust. I can tell you right now that both are awesome releases of awesome films. But I’ll go into some more detail, in chronological order.

      The old IMD of b lists more than 40 films just called Faust so Lord knows how many versions of the tale there are altogether (Christopher Lee was in a weird one in the 1960s called Catharsis which might be a lost film – certainly he’d said he’d never seen it when I interviewed him). Jan Svankmajer did a Faust film in the 1990s. Brian Yuzna made a bloody awful one in about 2000. But despite being just shy of 90 years old, Murnau’s take remains the definitive Faustian filmic experience. You all know the story: bloke summons demon, sells soul in exchange for the good life, lives to regret it, ends up in Hell. The rather simplistic moral is basically ‘don’t make deals with Satan’. And might I add: doh.

      Swedish stage actor Gosta Ekman stars as Faust, initially under very good old-age make-up. Emil Jannings, known to fans of German expressionist horror for his role in Waxworks - and to everyone else for starring opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel – is Mephisto, the demon he summons as the only possible solution to the plague striking down his fellow citizens. Faust is a good man, you see, a God-fearing Christian and certainly not a Satanist. But Old Nick (also Jannings, in awesome make-up) has made a wager with the Archangel Michael that he can turn the soul of a good man. Or something. Actually, why is an Archangel placing bets? Isn’t gambling supposed to be a sin?

      So anyway, wise old alchemist Faust can’t help those afflicted by the plague (which was sent onto the Earth by Satan as the first stage of his cunning plan) so in desperation heads for a crossroads at midnight, where he sells his soul in return for becoming the greatest blues guitarist who ever lived. No, hang on, that was Robert Johnson. No, Faust summons Mephisto to the crossroads and Jannings appears as a twinkly-eyed creep with a handy parchment and an offer to try the whole power-trip thing for just 24 hours. Faust signs in blood, and is miraculously able to cure plague sufferers – until somebody spots that he is unable to look upon a cross. Outcast, Fausty-boy accepts Mephisto’s offer to become young and gay once again.

      While Faust transforms into a smartly-dressed, slightly androgynous pretty boy, Mephisto reinvents himself with cloak, feather-cap, sword and a campy over-the-top performance which is the direct ancestor of every pantomime villain ever performed. At times, Jannings looks remarkably like Eddie Izzard, which is a coincidence as Izzard of course appeared in Shadow of the Vampire, a fictional recreation of the making of Murnau’s Nosferatu. Although there he played Gustav von Wangenheim.

      After propositioning a noblewoman on her wedding day, arriving on a sling between two elephants – because, you know, if the Devil gave you unlimited power, that’s pretty much what you’d do – Faust has Mephisto fly him to his home town where he falls instantly in love with a pure girl named Gretchen. According to the informative booklet that accompanies the DVD, this role was originally offered to none other than Lillian Gish who actually flew out to Germany but left again when Murnau would not take on her favourite cameraman. Instead, the role was given to unknown Camilla Horn. The young lovers are counterpointed by a comic sub-plot of Mephisto being chased by Gretchen’s randy aunt, but then it all goes a bit tragic.  Mephisto taunts Gretchen’s brother (William Dieterle, later director of the Charles Laughton Hunchback of Notre Dame!), who is accidentally killed by Faust and, with his dying breath, denounces his sister as a whore. She is pilloried, shunned and gives birth to a baby (presumably Faust’s). Homeless in the snows of winter, she is unable to prevent her child from freezing to death, whereupon some passing soldiers arrest her for murder. Wow, she really can’t buy a break.

      From the pyre where she faces burning, she calls for Faust, who makes Mephisto fly him there. Renouncing his youth, he joins her amid the flames, becoming magically young again anyway, and they ascend to Heaven because – love. What a swizz. I dunno, Satanic contracts, seems they’re not worth the blood they were written in. Story aside, Faust’s strengths are visual: a chiaroscuro symphony of light and dark, shadows and illumination. The prologue with the angels and devil is particularly good with amazing costumes – impressive wingspan, as the pig said to the spaceman.

      Nevertheless, for all the production values and special effects, this is very much old school German silent filmmaking. The image is often framed with black and the movements, though unhurried, are staccato as the picture was apparently shot at 20fps. Where Eureka has really scored is in bringing us the original German print. Before someone invented the interpositive, all prints were struck from the original negative which would eventually wear out. So major films like Faust were shot with two cameras side by side. The domestic audience got the best version while foreigners made do with the ‘export print’, shot from a slightly poorer angle and often more sloppily edited (making it longer, but not better). Previous releases have generally been the export version but Eureka presents both versions, as well as a featurette showing some of the significant differences. My favourite is a fairground scene where the angle is the same but two takes were used. In the domestic print, a man in the background wrestles with a bear; in the export print, he faces a bloke in a bear costume. One can imagine the scene: “Now eins more vor der voreign fersion! Ready mit der bear, Helmut?” “Sodden-sie disch! Der bear nearly hadden meine head ovv last time! Getten-sie Wilhelm und seiner bearencostume!”

      It’s incredible to think that just three years separate Faust and Frau im Mond as, apart from being silent and Deutsch, they have nothing in common. Faust looks back to German legend and history (it is subtitled A German Folk Tale) and sits thematically with the likes of Paul Leni’s Der Golem or Murnau’s own Siegfried. It couldn’t be more Teutonic if it had a fat Viking woman with a bra made from saucepan lids. But Lang’s 1929 follow-up to Metropolis looks forward, reflecting a new Germany which was emerging from the woes of the past, harnessing its engineering prowess to establish itself as a world power. And we all know how well that turned out…

      Willy Fritsch (the detective in Spione, the thriller Lang shot between his two sci-fi pictures) stars as Wolf Helius, the young man who leads the first-ever rocket mission to the Moon in search of Lunar gold reserves. Accompanying him are Manfeldt, the elderly professor who designed the rocket, and because every film needs a love triangle, Helius’s friend/love-rival Windegger and his fiancé Friede, who could have married Helius if he’d got there first. The fifth member of the crew is Gustav, untrustworthy agent of a business cartel who stole Manfeldt’s rocket blueprints from Helius’s safe. Though lacking a square moustache, Gustav has a swept-across Hitler haircut that gives him, in retrospect, an even more dastardly air.

      But the real star of the film is the rocket itself, also called Friede. Lang called on the expertise of no less than Willy Ley and Herman Oberth – two of the most important names in the history of rocketry - and though it may not at first glance look much like a Saturn V, there’s a scientific accuracy to the Friede which had not been seen before and wouldn’t be seen again until Destination Moon in 1950, and then again 19 years later in 2001 (as it were…). In fact the rocket is modelled on a design proposed by Oberth in one of his books: a multi-stage rocket designed to transport astronauts to the Moon and back. The miniature effects in the launch sequence are magnificent, the Lunar landscapes (built in a studio) are impressive, even if cinematic expedience required the place to have an atmosphere. Very cleverly, Lang got around the problem of representing zero gravity by fitting the inside of the Friede with shoe- and hand-straps, enabling the actors to clamber around during the in-flight scenes without having to ‘float’.

      Also innovative was a countdown from ten to zero before the rocket launch (which Lang correctly predicted would be a great public spectacle; I love the balloon-seller among the crowds of extras!). Before this, rocketry pioneers in Germany – and Russia, Britain and the States – just lit the fuse and ran like hell. The countdown was just a cinematic device to create tension in the absence of any sound effects or dialogue, but of course real rocket scientists found it useful and now it’s the norm. In fact, Frau im Mond was more than just an inspiration to future rocketeers, it was directly influential. The PR wonks at film studio UFA wanted to launch an (unmanned) rocket on the day of the premiere as a publicity stunt. But the science was still in its infancy and this proved impractical. Nevertheless, the German government took an interest in the project and ended up hiring a hotshot teenager who was part of the team working with Oberth and Ley. His name: Werner von Braun. Von Braun of course developed the deadly V2s which rained down on London and The Hague, and the V2 technology led directly to the post-war American (and Russian) space programme, hence the Apollo programme and the eventual Moon landing.

      Of course there is plenty in Frau im Mond which is less realistic, beyond the aforementioned Lunar atmosphere. For example, a young boy stows away on the spaceship, which seems pretty careless, particularly given the corporate skulduggery and dangers that led to Gustav’s presence. More pertinently, the interior design of the control cabin is bizarre. At launch, the crew are strapped onto beds suspended on springs: sensible move, and a stretching spring is a cheap, easy effect that cleverly conveys the increased G-force. But the actual controls, which require operation during the ascent, are on a vertical panel between Helius’s and Windegger’s bunks, thus requiring the astronauts to twist round and reach right across, stretching every muscle to pull a lever. Not thought that one through, have they?

      I have waited a long time to see Frau im Mond and I love it! Eureka’s version is crystal clear, longer than previous versions, with a fine score and a short German documentary that includes an interview with Oberth. If I’m being picky, the English subs are sometimes hard to read on top of the German intertitles, but that’s hardly significant. This is an essential S-F movie, just as Murnau’s Faust is an essential horror film. Both are released this month and with Eureka! also putting a restored Cabinet of Dr Caligari into cinemas, there’s no better time to reacquaint yourself with the highlights of German silent cinema.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.