Second Time Around

Films by F.W. Murnau
Boiling clouds of gray herald the arrival of the demon Mephistopheles at the beginning of F.W. Murnau's Faust, one of the two films screening in the Bay Area this week by the late silent master of wavery light and encroaching shadow. The demon, who spreads his wings over the Earth like subpoenas from Kenneth Starr, targets the wise and ancient Faust for temptation; the fate of the Earth itself is at stake. Failing to combat the plague with his program of universal health care, the distressed Faust succumbs to demonic temptation, grows young again, and gives himself over to earthly pleasure. The downfall of this international playboy comes when Faust's seduction of an innocent maiden is discovered by an aroused mob of puritanical hypocrites -- a medieval mass media who put poor Gretchen to the legal pillory and stake. The parallels between this ancient legend, as filmed in 1926, and this morning's news point to the tale's universality -- just as Sunrise, the other Murnau film screening this week, suggests one possible future for Mr. and Mrs. Clinton: In it, a peasant wife with bad hair forgives her husband's wanderings as they head back to the farm.

These famed and influential films would be of merely academic interest if not for their lively cinematic beauty, more evident than ever by contrast to today's garish color and detail. The beauties of Faust and Sunrise rely as much on suggestion as show-and-tell: Murnau's work, more than anyone's, introduced Hollywood and the rest of the world to mobile camera work and gently graded shifts in light. The forced perspectives of Murnau's fantasy landscapes liberate the imagination rather than twisting it out of shape for immediate effect. Solemn though they may be, Murnau's films also avoid heaviness, thanks to the fluidity of his prowling camera and sporadically effective comic relief, most notably Emil Jannings' lascivious mugging as Faust's satanic aide-de-camp. By contrast, the drunken pig in Sunrise seems a concession to Hollywood, where that film was made in 1927, a year after the German superproduction Faust. In both movies, though, Murnau creates legends with light and as such earns his rank as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

-- Gregg Rickman

Faust screens Friday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley. Tickets are $5.50; call (510) 642-1124. Sunrise screens Thursday, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. at the Castro, 429 Castro (at Market). Tickets are $6.50; call 621-6120.

 
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