adding sound to silents

sydney premiere of murnau’s 1926 faust

The Goethe Institut’s innovative gerMANY FACES australia festival opened September 10 with a screening of FW Murnau’s 116-minute 1926 film classic, Faust, apparently this country’s premiere screening.

The film is a remarkable experience in itself but was transformed in this concert screening by the live accompaniment of American composer Phillip Johnston (who composes in Australia for Bell Shakespeare among others) leading a small cabaret-strength ensemble of clarinet, ukelele, piano, accordion, cello and voice.

As well as scoring a number of contemporary films, Johnston has composed for new screenings of classics by Todd Browning, Buster Keaton and George Méliès. For his account of Faust, he has largely eschewed sound effects and movie soundtrack scoring, treating the film like a music theatre work by providing vocals, set pieces and recurring melodies.

It seemed, however, a strange thing to subject a 1920s film with a calculated mediaeval scenography (for all its expressionist strategies) to Johnston’s deployment of popular American idioms: blues, gospel, jazz. These are embedded in the composer’s engaging melodic minimalism, but at times feel somewhat out of kilter with what we are seeing. Hilary Bell’s libretto (affecting at times) also has to work against the film’s intertitles.

Sometimes, at its plainest, the meeting of Murnau and Johnston worked, elsewhere it simply couldn’t—histories and cultures bashed up against one another. But the experience was frequently rewarding, the film wonderful (the modest visual effects, such as Mephistopheles looming over a mediaeval city, were surprisingly powerful) and the band, the dextrous Johnson included, excellent, singer/speaker Lauren Easton above all. RT

Faust/Murnau, director FW Murnau, composer, saxophone, piano, ukelele Phillip Johnston, accordion Elizabeth Jones, cello John Napier, voice Lauren Easton, Seymour Centre, Sydney, Sept 10; www.phillipjohnston.com

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 26

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2007