Movie: Faust (1926)

This afternoon I went to watch the silent film classic “Faust” in the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer (the Anglican cathedral here in Calgary) accompanied by a live piano score. I’ve been a film buff for many years, but I haven’t had much exposure to silent films. As my current work-in-progress takes place in the 1920s, I thought it would be worthwhile to see what my characters might have seen.

The film opens with the Archangel and the demon Mephisto making a wager over the soul of Faust. Mephisto sends the plague to Faust’s village, and gives Faust a chance to save people, if only he’ll make a pact to give up his soul. The original pact is for one day only, but when Mephisto convinces Faust to embrace youth, the trial day turns into an eternity of youth, pleasures and debauchery. Faust bores of this life, and falls in love with an innocent young woman named Gretchen. He corrupts her, and she bears his child, to be thrown out and reviled as a whore. When her child dies, she’s convicted as a murderess, sentenced to be burned at the stake. When Faust realizes what has happened, he commands Mephisto to take him to her. He does not arrive in time to save her, and Mephisto turns him back into his aged self. He throws himself on the pyre with his beloved Gretchen, and she recognizes him, even in his old age. Love has redeemed him, and the Archangel rules that the Devil has not won the soul of Faust. The film closes as it began, on the image of the triumphant Archangel.

At first I had to remind myself that the effects were striking for the time period, but after the film had progressed, I stopped reminding myself and lost myself in the imagery. The play of light and shadow was captivating, and the look and makeup of Mephisto is something that must have heavily influenced later depictions, as he looked like our modern conception of the Devil, or even of a vampire. His hovering over the town was also used in the cartoon ‘Fantasia’.

I found it interesting that Mephisto is also aged at the start of the film, but when he gives Faust his youth, he also turns into a youthful version of himself. And he has a sense of humour, taking a woman’s love potion (likely brandy or another spirit) and mixing it up with a few other ingredients to turn it into a real love potion. She drinks it, and falls in love with Mephisto, to his amusement and dismay. Though Faust’s journey is a dark one, Mephisto’s antics had many in the audience snickering. There was much applause at the end, and the composer and pianist spoke briefly afterwards.

According to Robert Bruce, the pianist who scored the film today, every theatre would have had its own set of musicians to create a live score for each film that played. However, unlike his score, most would be made up quickly, given that new films would screen regularly. I can imagine this could be a challenge to the musicians and it’s fascinating to think that if you went to see the same film in several theatres, you could hear a different score in each. I wonder if anyone actually did that, just to have a different experience of the same film?

The presentation was hosted by the Pro Arts Society, and now that I know they exist, I’ll be checking out their future events.