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Faust: A Silent Movie (1926)

Andrey Henkin By

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F.W. Murnau
Music by Willem Breuker
Faust (1926)

F.W Murnau was one of the giants of the Silent Film Era. His most famous work is 1922's Nosferatu but his interpretation of the Faust legend was his most expansive work, also his last before leaving his native Germany.

That Willem Breuker would choose to write new music for this film should surprise no one. Breuker has never backed away from a challenge and he is cinematic enough in scope to be successful. And up to a point he is. The question is what he was trying to do.

The function of music in silent films is much different than into what modern day soundtracks have evolved. With a choppier flow of action (due both to that lack of dialogue and the limitations of filmmaking at the time), the music had to keep things moving forward and only occasionally sync up with the action on the screen. The original print had an orchestral score unsurprisingly Wagnerian, but the new edition is in many ways jarring, the music often clashing in feel with the action onscreen. At first this is because of the disparity between modern recording techniques and "ancient filmmaking ones. After that contrast is absorbed, the music is often too upbeat for the film, making what is arguably a creepy moralistic film campy.

Of course Breuker has been accused of campiness before and one wonders whether he is being misinterpreted. The Kollektief is a wonderfully funny group, almost slapstick, but still one of the tightest ensembles around playing extremely complicated music. That same dynamic is here and makes for an interesting dichotomy between sight and sound. This viewer's interpretation is that Breuker sees in this movie all the excesses and kitsch of a previous era but also understands how seriously it was taken upon release and tried to write music to reconcile the two.


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