Silent cinema review: Faust (1926), with Philharmonia Orchestra

The Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank was the venue for last night’s screening of FW Murnau’s ‘Faust’ (1926), starring Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings and Camilla Horn, which was also the premiere of a new score by Aphrodite Raickopoulou, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra with Gabriela Montero improvising on the piano.

Faust is a German classic, based on the story of the old man who sells his soul to the devil, initially so he can heal plague victims but eventually so he can snatch back his own youth.  But Mephisto is a clever chap who is one step ahead of Faust, tricking him at every turn.  At first this shows flashes of humour – Mephisto’s dalliance with Aunt Marthe, for example – but with the introduction of Gretchen (‘an innocent girl running to a priest’) the story takes a darker turn.

With primitive special effects and some ripe performances (mainly from Jannings as the Devil and Wilhelm Dieterle – who went to Hollywood to direct – as Gretchen’s brother) Faust can be said to show its age, but still, it has power, emotion, and energy, as well as some clever and imposing shots.  The death riders through the sky.  Mephisto enveloping a whole town with the Black Plague.  The wretched Gretchen’s visions which seal her fate.  The final shots, in which the Devil’s spell is broken, and he is cast out from the presence of God by the one word which blocks his power – ‘love’.

Raickopoulou’s score fits perfectly with the film, and was played beautifully.  I could have done without the lame puns of her celebrity friend, Hugh Grant, who showed a profound ignorance of the film and its period when he introduced it.  Best to let films of this age speak for themselves.  Faust was one of Murnau’s great silent classics – the others are Nosferatu (1922, based unofficially on Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Der letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (1924), both made in Germany, and Sunrise (1928), made in the USA.

Murnau never got to enjoy a career in the talkies as he died in a car accident in 1931, with his final film Tabu released a week after his death.