“Faust” and German expressionism

The second film in this series of analyses focused on European cinema(s) is FaustFaust is a key example of German expressionist film. Studying German expressionism is best studied with the understanding of two approaches: the critical accounts of the period, which approaches contemporary critical reactions; and the industrial account; which approaches the German film industry’s contemporary history.

After World War One, Germany’s empire became a republic, with a new constitution signed at the German National Theatre. This theatre was home to a statue of Johann Goethe, writer of the two-part stage-plays upon-which Faust is based. Germany’s history during the constitutional period established in Weimar lasted from 1919 to 1946 and was known as the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was a period of political instability, but was German art’s most creative period. It is during this time that expressionism developed in Germany.

In Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary, University of Amsterdam’s Film and Television Studies lecturer Professor Thomas Elsaesser – himself from Germany – defined German expressionism based on numerous critical interpretations as:

What in the films is identified with “Expressionism” is the unusual lighting, the stylisation of the sets and acting, the “Gothic”-story material and fairy-tale motifs, angular exteriors, claustrophobic interiors, and above all, that excess of soul ascribed to things typically German.

What’s important to note is that Elsaesser has further defined “excess of soul” and “things typically Germany” as subjective ideas that are open to individual interpretation and critical agenda.

Other notable conventions of German expressionism is exaggerated and intimidating sets, which blend with melodramatic acting using highly contrasting cinematography that boosts shadows and draws attention to emotional extremities. This has been defined from the Italian phrase “chiaroscuro”. Set design is therefore one of the most important principles in German expressionism; Faust‘s set designer is Walter Röhrig, who also drafted numerous conceptual sketches.

But German expressionism is also defined by narrative themes as well as aesthetic properties. Story premises are often fantastical and inspired by Gothic fiction and folklore. Faust was adapted from the stage-plays that were themselves based-upon Germanic and Scandinavian folklore. The adapted screenplay was written by Hans Kyser. Faust‘s villain, Mephisto, first appeared in the original legend – and is portrayed in Faust by Emil Jannings, the only German actor have won an Oscar.

In the chapter Mise-en-Scene in the academic collection Einstein’s Ivan the Terrible, film historian Kristin Thompson defined German expressionism as:

a stylistic term applying to a general attempt to minimize the differences among the four aspects of mise-en-scène: lighting, costume, figure disposition and behaviour, and setting.  The expressionist film makes, as much as possible, a single visual material of these aspects; the result is an emphasis on overall composition.  Expressionism lends the expressivity of the human body to the entire visual field, while simultaneously trying to make the body purely a compositional element.

In opposition to this, film historian Barry Salt didn’t list Faust as an example of a film which is completely expressionist.

While other genres of film were exhibited during the Weimar Republic period, German expressionism is that which has come to define Weimar cinema, due its popularity in France and America as an alternative to Hollywood films. German expressionist films were mostly distributed by UFA.

More controversial publications on the subject of German expressionism are film academic Lotte Eisner’s Die dämonische Leinwand and critical film theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler. These unconventional revisions of German expressionism were challenged by Elsaesser. Elseasser noted that Eisner and Kracauer were both German Jews in exile who were attempting to explain how the Nazis could have been allowed to become so powerful. While German expressionism was popular in 1920s Europe, their fascist themes have only been analysed in a post-WWII culture; nobody expected the rise of fascism in Europe during the Weimar Republic’s contemporary interwar expressionist period. Elsaesser notes also how national cinema is not an indicator of national identity or cultural values, and each film should be considered on its own, as an expression of its key artists. For example, Elseasser points-out that Kracauer only uses expressionism as an indicator of fascism’s rise in Germany, despite German expressionist films only constituting 8% of Germany’s interwar cinematic output – the populist films are omitted, thus proving (as far as Elsaesser is concerned) that Kracauer was using auteur-led art films as a cross-section for a country’s popular interests, and not its mainstream films produced for mass audiences.

It is these industry contexts which need to be understood in order to gain an accurate insight into German expressionist film between the wars. UFA was formed in 1917 as a merger of Messter Film, Projektions-Aktiengesellschaft Union and Nordisk Film. This was in itself a retaliation to another merger between studios that created a larger corporation, whose goal was to combine budgets into films which could be sold internationally – German hyperinflation meant that any grossing in stabilised economies gave profits returned to Germany guaranteed higher financial value by comparison.

Quoted in The Sociology of Film Art, UFA Head of Production Erich Pommer said:

The German film industry made “stylised films” to make money…  Germany was defeated: how could she make films that would compete with the others?  It was impossible to try and so we tried something new; the Expressionist or stylised films.

Expressionism is unique amongst film styles in that it is unconventional art-house cinema produced by a vertically-integrated studio system. While German expressionist films resemble independent productions, they were commissioned by studio producers who wanted to use the mainstream film industry to create films which could be marketed toward independent film’s typical audience. Weimar producers were using independent styles in the pursuit of raising profits for the mainstream film industry by selling films abroad. Therefore, it is difficult to sustain the argument that German expressionist films are inherent of Weimar Germany’s national values when they were produced for foreign markets due to their perception of being typical German films by those foreign markets, but not necessarily by Germany itself.

And yet, it was expressionism that sank UFA; Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: Cinematic Visions of Technology and Fear cites Metropolis‘ budget at ℛℳ5M, with a gross of only ℛℳ75K. Metropolis lost UFA so much money that they collapsed in 1927.

America’s Dawes Plan of 1924 helped stabilise Weimar Germany’s economy, which proved inconvenient for Pommer’s (previously described) strategy. Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer agreed to distribute UFA’s films in American and Britain, and UFA in return reserved 75% of its cinemas’ bookings for Paramount and MGM films; UFA’s own films now had even less audience in Germany.

Faust is one of UFA’s final films before its collapse in 1927. Like most German expressionist films, Faust is based on Germanic folklore; Faust is an alleged historical figure who could heal the sick using magic. The belief that Faust had made had made a pact with the Devil led to a distortion of his life that told of him being given powers by the Devil in order to help people, while also enjoying eternal youth. Johann Goethe’s interpretation of Faust in his two-part stage-play is the most successful staged production in Germany. Considered to be Goethe’s magnum opus, Faust has also been considered the greatest work of German literature. The film adaptation of Faust draws upon the ending of Goethe’s second part.

Five editions of Faust are known to exist:

  • The edition which premiered in Germany (which can only be found in the Danish Film Institute)
  • A French edition, which retains takes including filming errors that were not present originally and new takes that were also not present originally.
  • A later German edition
  • A European bilingual edition
  • Murnau’s director’s cut prepared for America

The German premiere edition omits numerous scenes not present in other editions. The Blu-ray Disc release by Kino International includes that German premiere edition, but retains the original German premiere edition’s intertitles in Gothic script.