When watching a silent film, I always have to get into a different mindset. I have to tell myself “Pay attention, don’t fall asleep, don’t answer that text, and for god’s sake like the film.” There is always this sort of pressure (that I put on myself, because I want to be sophisticated) to like every silent film that I watch. Even with blatantly not good films like Birth of a Nation, I still feel the need to research it and find its strengths (like the film being the first use of tracking shots and Lillian’s Gish performance being kind of naturalistic for the time and so forth). I have to appreciate silent films or else I will never be a good film goer, a good film critic or a good person.
So with all this baggage that I always take to watching silent films, they can become a burden on my Netflix queue that I only elevate when I have been put to shame by other ardent film watchers. However I end up going through some great experiences when I finally break down and this film is defiantly a good experience for me.
Directed by F.W. Murnau and being his last film in Germany before he went Hollywood, he pulled all the stops. He brought Emil Jennings (who is in another silent film that I admire quite a lot: The Blue Angel by Erich Von Sternberg) into the fold, spent thousands of dollars on effects and set pieces, and mined a classic German story without giving it any credit (like he did with Dracula). Emil Jennings and Gosta Ekman (Mephisto and Faust) bring light and energy to the story with Emil hamming it up as the devil-like creature and Gosta playing an older man and a younger man with panache befitting the heyday of silents.
One thing that is needed in order to appreciate silent films is to understand theater. Almost every actor and actress came from some sort of theater before entering film and that is the only type of acting that was known in the world at that time. Of course now, most people are aware of the differences between theatrical and film acting. So when Emil made grotesque faces and swung his arms about, he was playing that character like he was on stage. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just one of those things that you have to adjust for in silent films. However even though theater and film acting is very different, I prefer someone having at least some acting experience before they step onto a production the size of this. However when Murnau casted Camilla Horn as Gretchen, she had no acting experience and it shows. Her performance is boring and obvious. She is no Lillian Gish. (which is who Murnau really wanted.) There is so much potential in her role as a virgin spoiled by Faust, but it wasn’t reached by her. There was also no attraction between Faust and Gretchen at all.
The best parts of the film was when Mephisto was tricking Faust into finding a cure for the plague, making him a young man and making sure that the romance between Faust and Gretchen would only spoil her reputation and not lead to anything lasting.
This film was shot in the style of German expressionism. I love watching German expressionistic films because they are more unique than an American film from the same time frame. The sets are jagged, the special effects are stylistic and the costuming is more dramatic. All of these factors help with staying awake during the films.
Let me explain about me falling asleep during films. Most silent films are public domain and therefore there isn’t a lot of money in making them look and sound pretty, the score is usually generic (with the famous exception of Charlie Chaplin films where per the instructions of the estate who still own most of his films, the score is to be performed the same exact way that Charlie Chaplin wanted it.) In this film, the score rarely changes from the same progression, so it can become like a lullaby. Although I may be into the film story wise, I always feel the urge to nod off. I guess that does make me a bad film watcher. Oh well.
I would watch this film after you have had some experience with silent films and German expressionism. Although the shots are interesting, it would be difficult to get into if you decided that this would be the first silent you watched. Once you become accustomed to the aesthetics of the time, then I would definitely recommend this film for the Mephisto character and the beautiful sets and special effects. Oh and because Murnau is a genius director. So there’s that.