A fun evening with friends including my friend Christa Lang Fuller, who introduced me to the 96 year old former actress Noreen Nash, (see blog) not too long ago. Christa hosted an evening with Justin from the Academy Museum, from next door and French American producer Martine Melloul and me to watch the vintage film ‘Faust’.
Christa is my age, German born, and was a young actress in Paris when she met the director Sam Fuller. At 23 she married him and eventually they left Paris for the U.S. They had a daughter, Samantha and she has a daughter, Samia. Sam died in 1997 and so the three women live in a beautiful warm and welcoming home on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills.
Christa has a sort of salon and along with her stories she feeds us food in abundance. This time Justin from the Academy Museum brought the blu-ray of Murnau’s 1925 masterpiece, Faust, starring Gösta Ekman as Faust, Emil Jannings as Mephisto, Camilla Horn as Gretchen/Marguerite, Frida Richard as her mother, Wilhelm Dieterle (who is better known as the director William Dieterle) as her brother and Yvette Guilbert (the cabaret singer often painted by Toulouse Lautrec and featured on many Steinlen posters for the Moulin Rouge) as Marthe Schwerdtlein, her aunt.
Murnau’s film draws on older traditions of the legendary tale of Faust as well as on Goethe’s classic version. UFA wanted Ludwig Berger to direct Faust, as Murnau was engaged with Variety, but Murnau pressured the producer and, backed by Jannings, eventually persuaded Erich Pommer to let him direct the film.
Cinema was only about 25 years old when Murnau made Faust. The set design, the lighting and special effects, including double exposures and a fabulously ominous scene with Mephisto’s shadow engulfing a town about to be overcome by The Plague tell a saga of the plague engulfed middle ages and a legend based upon an actual alchemist who tried to find an antidote to the plague. When all his concoctions and prayers do not protect the populace, most lovingly shown by the young girl pleading with him to save her mother’s life, he renounces God.
The devil, known as Mephisto, played with vigor and cunning and even some humor by Emil Jannings (later to play in The Blue Angel, the film that brought Marlene Dietrich, playing Lola, to stardom), grabs the opportunity to make a bet with God’s angel that he can corrupt and steal the soul of even the best of men, Faust himself.
Heavy in melodrama but nevertheless compelling, this gothic tale in its grandeur and almost epic scope engulfs us as we find ourselves rooting for Faust and Gretchen, suffering with Gretchen and redeemed by Love. Told in a very expressionistic style, with miniatures as backdrops and rooftops and the setting for storms and the Devil’s shadow, the strong visuals include various original special effects.
As Mephisto makes the bet with the Angel of God that he can corrupt the soul of the best man alive, the old alchemist Dr. Faust, he sends the plague to the midieval German town and Doctor Faustus wears himself out trying to find a cure. In his frustration he disavows God himself and burns almost all of his books, including The Bible. One page survives which tells him how to meet the Devil and fulfil his dreams at a certain crossroads. He goes there and Mephisto promises him everything in return for his soul when he dies. He gives him a 24 hour free trial and Faust begins exploring life eternal as a young man. He seduces the most beautiful women in the world. But then he sees Gretchen, the most pure and virginal young woman he has ever seen and he convinces Mephisto, against his advice, to give her to him. The promise of youth seems to have won Faust over and his love for the young virgin Gretchen whom he seduces and gets pregnant, shames her to the world which first casts her and her infant child out into a blinding snowstorm where her infant dies and then burns her at the stake for murdering her child. Faust disavows the devil and is returned to his old man’s body but he approaches Gretchen at the stake who sees him as the one she loves and with her love, she redeems him. The two of them ascend from the fiery stake to heaven. The redeeming Power of Love is the ultimate lesson of the story.
Most of Murnau’s films are lost (including Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus), a Jekyll-Hyde story starring Bela Lugosi and Conrad Veidt) but he seems to have been attracted to characters with two sides, the good and the bad.
Murnau’s 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, entitled Nosferatu appease Bram Stoker’s widow, was the exemplar of German Expressionist cinema. Nosferatu was the only film ever released by Prana Film because the company declared itself bankrupt to avoid paying damages to Stoker’s estate (acting for the author’s widow, Florence Stoker) after the estate won a copyright infringement lawsuit. Apart from awarding damages, the court ordered also all existing prints of the film to be destroyed. However, one copy had already been distributed globally. This print, which has been duplicated time and again over the years, made Nosferatu one of the first cult films.
Murnau emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, where he joined the Fox Studios and made three films: Sunrise (1927), 4 Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930). Sunrise, which played at Sundance as its Opening Night Film some years ago, is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.
In 1931, Murnau travelled to Bora Bora to make the film Tabu (1931) with documentary film pioneer Robert J. Flaherty, who left after artistic disputes with Murnau, who had to finish the movie on his own.
A week prior to the opening of the film Tabu, the 42 year old Murnau drove up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles, California in a hired Rolls-Royce. The young driver, a 14-year-old Filipino servant, crashed the car against an electric pole. Murnau suffered a head injury and died in a hospital the next day in nearby Santa Barbara, thus cutting short his blossoming American career just as he was about to sign with the much more auteur-friendly Paramount. Persistent rumours about the two being engaged in oral sex prior to the crash came courtesy of celebrated scandal-peddler Kenneth Anger.
Murnau is entombed in Southwest Cemetery in Stahnsdorf (Südwest-Kirchhof Stahnsdorf), near Berlin. Only 11 people attended the funeral. Among them were Robert J. Flaherty, Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Fritz Lang, who delivered the eulogy. Garbo also commissioned a death mask of Murnau, which she kept on her desk during her years in Hollywood.
In July 2015, Murnau’s grave was broken into, the remains disturbed and the skull removed by unidentified vandals. Wax residue found at the site led some to speculate that candles had been lit, perhaps with an occult or ceremonial significance. As this disturbance was not an isolated incident, the cemetery managers are considering sealing the grave.
And so it continues, desecration of graves, selling one soul to the devil to regain youth, the plague…the world is not much different today; and still today, love and art are the only redeeming forces.