Ethan Kanfer Review

By Ethan Kanfer
August 23, 2016

Film Directed by F.W. Murnau
Music composed by Ben Singer, performed by Modern Robot

Whether German auteur F. W. Murnau saw the writing on the wall is not known (he died in 1931, before the Nazis took power). But the horror he depicts in FAUST is eerily reminiscent of the Fascism to come.

Creepy as he is, it isn’t really the leering Mephisto (Emil Jannings) that threatens to destroy all the good in the world. Human vanity, prejudice and mob psychology are the real monsters here. The trouble starts when aging alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekmant), unable to save his town from a devastating plague, begins throwing his books, including the Bible, into the fire in frustration. One of the tomes falls open, and is revealed to be an occult instruction manual. Faust, ready to make a deal, follows the book’s crude diagrams and meets Mephisto at a shadowy crossroads.

Our hero gets his youth back, wallows in earthly splendors, and seduces the Duchess of Parma (Hannah Ralph). After the thrill of debauchery wears off, though, Faust discovers greater meaning in the pure face of the simple country girl Gretchen (Camilla Horn). Her innocence doesn’t last long, however. Faust’s neglectful treatment of Gretchen sets of a chain of a chain of tragic incidents that places her fatally at odds with an intolerant society. Murnau embellishes this cautionary tale with opulent sets, chiaroscuro lighting, Carl Hoffmann’s sweeping cinematography and special effects that, even in the age of CGI, are striking.

The Gothic potency of the images is complimented by an original score, performed live on percussion and guitar. Composer Ben Singer gives more of the complex phrasing to the drummer. The guitarist, in some of the slower scenes, remains limited to a two-chord, heavy-reverb universe. Still, what the music lacks in melodic variety it makes up for in proficiency and rapport. In the more kinetic moments, and especially in the film’s brutal climax, both musicians get a chance to shine, with fuzz pedal distortion and other hard rock pyrotechnics put to effective use. A neglected classic, FAUST is ripe for rediscovery, and the added energy of live music makes it all the more compelling.

AT THE CROSSROADS: MUSIC FOR FAUST continues on Wednesday, August 24th @ 8:00 at 85 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009.