October 31, 2008

Black wings

Terrestrial life is a drama directed from above. Or it is in the medieval world of Murnau's Faust. His Nosferatu was set in the open air, in the depopulated backwoods of Europe; his Faust unfolds in large and detailed but clearly artificial sets. There is expressionist distortion and supernatural realism: the winding steps in the German village are impossibly steep, the flowers, fields and girls impossibly pretty. This teeming human life is someone's dream -- that of Faust himself, caught in the sickness of his temptations, hypnotised by beauty, dreaming himself as perpetually young.

I caught a screening of Faust on a recent trip to the Melbourne Arts Festival; it came with a new live score by Phillip Johnston. Someone detected a hint of Robert Johnson blues guitar during the crossroads scene; the new libretto kept coming back to a theme about enjoying life while you can, because the plague is imminent. As they say, it's a film shot in darkness and light, not black and white, made with astonishing perfectionism and a painterly eye. And can you detect Murnau's own alleged solitude and aloofness in the doomed Faust, struggling to make meaningful human contact, or in Mephisto himself, keeping up his end of the bargain only to have the bland and beautiful angel over-rule him in the end with the universe's ruling word, "love"? (Yes, the house wins.)

The great critic Robin Wood has said that sexuality is the source of evil in Murnau. And it is here, through Mephisto's smirking seduction of Gretchen's aunt Marthe as little more than a time-killing prank, and through the pursuit of Gretchen by Faust that will take two lives and ruin a third (Faust's). But evil, also, is about the manipulation of events. Thomas Elsaesser in Weimar Cinema and After, on Nosferatu: "Not unlike Nosferatu himself, mastermind but also enmeshed in the events, the majority of the characters are at once 'inside' the fiction and also standing apart from it." Similarly, Mephisto sets up an earthly drama, and then steps into it.

And so the most famous shot might still be the early one (above) of the giant Mephisto looming over the medieval village, his black wings casting a long shadow over the streets and houses. It's also an image of the plague, of death sweeping in from the east. And it was imitated more than ten years later at the beginning of the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Disney's Fantasia -- a sequence that gave us a lively Halloween night of Satanic revellers vanquished by the sound of church bells and the peaceful light of day. "A picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred," as Fantasia's narrator says, and it's still impressive, as most of that strange, ambitious Disney project continues to be. But Walt's devil has no human qualities, no charm, no cunning -- he's all monster, a horned, greedy Moloch. And he retreats without much complaint when the morning arrives and we see and hear a religious pilgrimage set to "Ave Maria". It's about a co-dependency between light and dark, not an opposition. In Murnau's film, the devil puts up more of a fight.