F. W. Murnau (1926)
Second Act, San Francisco
January 22, 2016
The Second Act is the ever more thriving remnant of the Red Vic, a small San Francisco repertory movie theater in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. A few years ago the theater was converted to hold several food outlets and there remains only a small movie screen in a room holding ~60 persons. The owners have been experimenting to find events that can attract a full audience there. In the summer of 2014 we watched the U.S. national soccer team giving much stronger opposition to the Germans than Brazil did in their embarrassing 7-1 semi-final loss. There were barely 20 people in attendance. Of late The Second Act has taken to showing old silent films, with local musicians providing the music. Check out their website for all upcoming events.
Last night they showed F. W. Murnau's Faust, with live music by That Hideous Strength, to a packed house. The film is loosley based on Goethe's story but it also reaches back to older versions. The story was a popular puppet show at carnivals in the 16th century.
Murnau's film is a powerful production, with special effects that were reprised in the Wizard of Oz and many other more recent films. The original music score was by Werner Richard Heyman. In 1995 a modern score was written for the film by Timothy Brock. Last night's production was at least partially improvised with Theresa Wong on cello and voice, Benjamin Ethan Tinker on synthesizer and keyboards, David Phillips on pedal steel guitar, Charles Lloyd on electric Sitar, Josephine Torrio on vocals and hammered dulcimer, Adria Ott on violin and electronics, and Tania Chen on piano. The effect was haunting. Even with a movie streaming from You Tube, this is a labor of love. With 60 people paying on a sliding scale from $7 to $10, there is not a lot of money to go around.
Murnau was born in 1888 and was 36 years old when he made this film. He left for Hollywood and Fox theaters as Faust was being finished. In Hollywood he made three films for Fox (Sunrise, 4 Devils,and City Girl). He died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident on the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Barbara in 1931.
Although Murnau left Germany in 1926 and was dead two years before the Nazi takeover, Faust is infected by its time. Mephisto (the devil) is an extreme Jewish caricature reminiscent of Shakespeare's scheming Shylock. Halfway into the film, Mephisto is transformed into a younger black-caped count, a vampire figure. Vampire figures are, of course, also closely tied to anti-semitic symbolism.
The story revolves around a bargain made by Mephisto with the archangel Gabriel. They behold Faust, the Lord's loyal servant, who pursues knowledge for the good of mankind. The devil scoffs, "Like all men, Faust seeks to do good but winds up doing evil." Mephisto points out that Faust is an alchemist--seeking to turn base metals into gold. The bet is on: if Mephisto can turn Faust's soul away from God, the earth will be his.
The devil is confident. "No man can resist evil," he crows. To prove it he spreads his menacing black wings wide over the city and brings on the ravages of the plague. Faust engages in earnest prayer for God to intervene and to stop the plague, but God abstains. God will not intervene.
God will not interfere with the wager. In a way the devil is right, the world is his plaything to act upon as he sees fit; to test and corrupt mankind. Neither the archangel nor God interfere with the devil's schemes and torments of mankind. Man is left to his and her own devices, our own free will, to resist a fall into evil.
It's a Manechean conception of man as a by-product of the eternal struggle between the (good) forces of God and the evil forces of Satan. But here, God does not enter the fight on behalf of the Good; mankind is left to struggle against evil with only his wits and his free will.
And of course man is a weak creature in this fight.
Faust soon finds that prayer is ineffective to stave off the evils of the plague. Similarly, his knowledge and the medicines derived from his knowledge are ineffective. The priests rail against sin and proclaim sinners will perish, but promise the virtuous will be saved. It's folly, an illusion. God does not save the priests and they too fall victim to the plague along with the sinners.
We are lost Faust realizes. Neither prayer nor knowledge can save us in the battle against the evils of the plague. He looks at the promise in the bible of the everlasting goodness of Jesus Christ--the all powerful God--and he cries in despair. He throws the bible in the fire along with his books of science. The pages open to an occult text revealing the key for overcoming evil spirits. Three times you must summon the Lord of darkness at the cross-roads, says the text. Like Robert Johnson, Faust heeds the call; and Mephisto appears in his Jewish guise.
Mephisto tempts Faust with the power to heal if only he would renounce God. He offers a free trial for a day. And suddenly, Faust is able to bring about miracle cures.
And it does not take long for Faust to corrupt his new found powers from helping mankind to helping himself. With the help of Mephisto he first seduces a lovely countess at her marriage ceremony, and later a fine Christian girl. Nothing good comes of it. But there is true love.... and therein lies salvation.
The next silent film program is at the end of February. Keep an eye on the Second Act website. Check it out!