F. W. Murnau’s 1926 Faust is a powerful example of German expressionist black and white film. Faust uses earlier folk tales and Goethe’s original tale as a basis for its own plot. The story is one of a man selling his soul to devil, and the repercussions of this bargain. At the DCA screening, a modern composition by Alex Smoke scored for electronic samples was used by a classical quintet of musicians from the Scottish Ensemble. The driving rhythmic forms of the quintet mixed with sampled sounds, electronic pulses, and xylophone tunes to create a soundscape which emphasised the emotional force of the film. In this case, Smoke’s music helped bridge the gap between contemporary expectations and the less familiar form of early 20th century expressionism which requires lingering shots of facial gestures and extravagant movements from the actors.
In recent years, there has been a reawakening of interest in screening silent movies with live music which is either improvised on the night or else performed from a specially written contemporary score. These are somewhat different from the large orchestral scores composed by Carl Davies in the 1980s for epics such as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) or Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Sometimes the musicians aim at historical reconstruction of original soundscapes; sometimes the improviser links musical motif and snatches of popular tunes with dramatic changes on screen. Most would recognise piano motifs which indicate danger, a chase, or a romantic scene in the classic silent films of the early years of Hollywood; these were recently and lovingly revived in The Artist, a homage to the silent era in film. Nowadays, many events are intimate experiences with small groups of musicians accompanying less well known European art films in one-off performances.This is one of the best ways to experience silent film. DJ Alex Smoke composed a new score for Faust as a commission for the 2011 Glasgow Film Festival. Having an early classical music education as a chorister and cellist, he seems equally at home with electronica, sympathetically merging the two genres to enhance the mysterious doom-laden elements of the film.
Murnau (1888-1931) is best known for his influential expressionist film, Nosferatu, the original 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Faust is similar visually , with strange angular camera shots and looming shadows underlining the dangers of selling your soul to the devil (here known as Mephisto). In many scenes, the faces of the main actors are strongly illuminated against murky or dark backgrounds, the light picking out eye movement. Additional imaginative and theatrical details include the lavishly winged representatives of good and evil whose dialogues frame the beginning and end of the story.
There are amazing effects throughout – the looming presence of the winged devil who sends the plague to Faust’s home town with dark mist and a rush of wind; Faust ringed in circles of light as he summons the devil at the crossroads; Mephisto cloaked in mist or arriving and disappearing in flames; more flames engulfing books, used in the transformation scene when the old Faust is rejuvenated, and in the last sequence, when Gretchen and Faust are reunited on a burning pyre; and a flight over Germany passing through a flock of storks. Crowd scenes are full of movement, and change rapidly from street fair frenzy to plague-stricken processions of penitents carrying the dead. I loved the complex but carefully controlled wedding sequence in which Faust, dressed as an Indian prince, seduces the Duchess of Parma. This remarkable section includes a group of women dancing in unison (possibly inspired by eurhythmics), lavishly costumed courtiers, scores of servants and, for the Indian prince’s procession, two fully bedecked elephants. Such a rich and rewarding film fully deserves Smoke’s pulsating and dramatic soundscape.