E1 Entertainment // 1982 // 177 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // February 18th, 2010
So Hell will be synonymous with the here and now of our present.
Published in 1947, Thomas Mann's great novel, Doktor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend places the story of Johann Goethe's Faust alongside the rise of fascism in Germany, and wraps them together in a tale of a composer who sells his soul for success. While this 1982 film adaptation doesn't really get to the heart of Mann's original work, it features fantastic performances that fully tell the author's core story.
Ever since he worked in his uncle's piano shop, Adrian Leverkühn (Jon Finch, The Horror of Frankenstein) knew he wanted to make music. He was a prodigy, an innovator almost from the very beginning, but his progress comes too slowly; he desires an easier path. He willfully contracts syphilis to start himself on a road to madness and, finally, is able to strike a deal with the devil. Leverkühn agrees to twenty-four years of unparalleled success in exchange for his soul. But there's one more catch: Satan wants his soul cold when he collects, so he forbids the composer from ever loving another person.
Coming at Doktor Faustus from a purely cinematic perspective, much in the film is brilliant. Told over three hour-long chapters, director Franz Seitz (the screenwriter on The Tin Drum) uses enough of the original novel to paint a complete picture of the character and allow for some philosophical weight, while always allowing himself a little bit of space for surrealistic touches that make the film its own unique experience. Seitz opens with a montage of black-and-white war footage, a technique that sets us on edge from the opening moments and sends askew the colorful, pastoral scenes to follow.
On one level, the beginning of the film is a very predictable prodigy story. Adrian is a nice young lad who is extremely good at the piano. At times, his talents are supported, but critical and monetary success is harder to come by. Below the surface, he is a strange and morbid boy, however. In one of our first experiences with him, he is fishing with his big brother and "falls" into the river. His brother believes he's drowning, but Adrian just wants to see how long he can hold his breath. Already, from this young age, he shows a disregard for his own life as he mocks death. Throughout his years growing up, he is obsessed with number puzzles, and it's in fact the intervals of notes that originally turn Adrian on to music. This obsession with mathematics travels with him throughout his life. As he nears adulthood, Adrian makes an odd choice. No matter his love for music and the composition work he's already done, he elects to study theology instead of music. He will finally succumb to his true love, but his initial choice shows the trouble he already has with the notion of the soul.
These characteristics play well within the boundaries of the Faust story. The legend of Faust plays a major role in the German mythos, and Goethe's work, for many, became synonymous with the ideal of German literature. Leverkühn plays with both of these. He is the Faust character in composer form. More than the details of the bargain, Leverkühn's character remains very close to the original legend. Based on a sixteenth century alchemist (or two), the composer is an alchemist of his own, using new concepts of mathematics to reconstruct the harmonic structure in place in Europe for centuries. He is working on this before the bargain, but it's Satan who allows him to complete his work. Leverkühn plays even more strongly into the ideal. As a character, he represents three sides of the German vision of itself. In the mathematics, he is the scientific man; in his decision to study theology, he is the spiritual man; in his true love of music, he is the artist. Together, this makes the German, or at least the one that people like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche held up as the ideal and the one that caused Wagner to write hours upon hours of opera.
Seitz expertly adapted Mann's novel for the screen. Though there are important parts missing from the film, Seitz does well to avoid some of the weightier portions of the book. Mann tends toward wordiness, and Seitz only has three hours to tell his story. As constructed, it moves very well, seamlessly going through the shown portions of his life, adding enough detail to give a nice picture of time and place without bogging the story down in minutia. The two most important things about the book for Seitz are the devil's pact and the music. The pact is treated very lightly; Seitz focuses on the prelude and the aftermath of the sale more than the transaction itself. Though that scene is put together in a deliriously surreal, Ken Russell fashion and is the most harrowing scene of the film, it is brief and never referred to again, only appearing as an accent to the rest of Leverkühn's actions and motivation. More important is Leverkühn's music, which takes center stage in the film. Written by Rolf Wilhelm (The Serpent's Egg), the work is based on the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg (the structure of the music in Mann's novel was directly cribbed from the composer) and, while it doesn't rise to the level of a master like Schoenberg's twelve-tone techniques, it fits very well with the dissonance Leverkühn's life has become, regardless of success.
While the filmmaking and the characterizations are top-notch, Seitz does fail in one important place. Although there has been too much made over the novel as an allegory for Fascism, the political climate for Mann when he wrote it certainly colored his story. Seitz uses the opening montage and some incidental dialog here and there to connect the Leverkühn story with the rise of Fascism and the coming war, but he never goes far enough. Even over three hours, detailed as this production is, there simply isn't enough time to get all of this in, and the film would be a little more accessible if it hadn't made the cut.
The only real downside of Doktor Faustus, unfortunately, is the disc from E1. Originally released as part of The Thomas Mann Collection in a subpar PAL transfer, nothing has been done to improve on that. The main issue is the blurring when the camera pans. Consistently distracting and irritating, it's almost a deal-breaker. This film looks too good not to have some restoration. The sound is a little better, insofar as it's always audible, but the mono German track is nothing special, by any means. There are no extras on the release.
Smartly written, well-acted, and nicely filmed, Doktor Faustus is a fantastic adaptation of Thomas Mann's novel. Even with the shoddy transfer, this is still recommended.
The film is not guilty, but E1 needs to step up their technical presentation;
this is awful.
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Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #70
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
Running Time: 177 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated