Magic of Murnau at Charles


April 01, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Composer-musician "Pope" Croke - his given name is Thomas - was a projectionist at the Charles from 1994 to 1998, and scored his first silent classic on electronic keyboards when the theater screened Victor Sjostrom's extraordinary 1928 anti-Western The Wind three years ago. He presents his most ambitious piece this week when he accompanies F.W. Murnau's epic Faust (1926) - his third Murnau film to date, following The Last Laugh (1924) and Sunrise (1927) - Saturday at noon, Monday at 7 and Thursday at 9. Playing nonstop for two hours makes Croke glad that the Charles hasn't installed an organ or a piano: "The keyboards have a light touch. I'd be cramping if I were on a piano for Faust."

Murnau may not be a household name today, but he was a genius at conjuring sensual atmospheres, and he synced his camera movements to his actors' movements so intuitively that he often made titles seem superfluous. No filmmaker of his era carried more international clout, and his Faust was a global event that despite lapses and longeurs remains a grand, concussive visual apocalypse.

Murnau frames the parable of Faust, the medieval scholar and doctor who sells himself to Satan, as "a German folk saga." The fate of the earth centers on a wager between Mephisto and the Archangel Gabriel for Faust's soul. Mephisto, of course, plays dirty. He spreads plague, then offers Faust the power to dispense relief; he tempts the bearded old scientist with youth and a life of passion, only to doom an innocent beauty named Gretchen after she awakens Faust's true love.

"A great deal of Murnau appeals to me," says Croke, "with his themes and archetypal images of morbid sexuality and horror. And this one has been fun. I'm dealing with an angel standing in clouds and Emil Jannings done up as the most evil creature the filmmakers could conceive, making such incredible faces. It's all over the top."

Croke has built his Faust score on a musical structure that juggles a triple contrast: the instability associated with the Devil, the perfection of the Angel, and the "harmony without resolution" of physical love. But Croke draws on diverse sources to fill out this basic form, including "two of the most despised genres: progressive rock from the 1970s and television commercial music, which is very short, very episodic, but sometimes very avant-garde, especially when cars are being sold." Croke also uses (naturally) bits of Gounod, Liszt and Busoni, as well as Robert Johnson and Black Sabbath.

For more information, go to 410-727-FILM or

Waters, `Romero' on tap

Creative Alliance kicks off its John Waters retrospective,The World According to Waters, tomorrow at 8 p.m. with a screening of Hairspray (1988), backed by a panel including Pat Moran, Waters' casting agent (and all-around collaborator and friend); Waters' frequent camera operator Dave Insley; and City Paper editor Lee Gardner. Former Baltimore Museum of Art curator Brenda Richardson will serve as moderator. Tickets are $10, $7 for members.

Sunday at 7 p.m. the Creative Alliance hosts the 1989 biopic Romero, starring Raul Julia as Oscar Romero, the priest who spearheaded protests against government death squads in El Salvador until his own assassination in 1980. Salvadoran friends of Romero will lead a discussion afterward. The film is in English with Spanish subtitles; the remarks will be in Spanish with English translation. Tickets are $8, $5 for members.

Both screenings will be at the restored Patterson Theatre, 3134 Eastern Ave. Call 410-276-1651 or go to

Cinema Sundays finale

Cinema Sundays at the Charles closes its winter series with Imaginary Heroes, a family drama starring Emile Hirsch as a numbed adolescent, Sigourney Weaver as his drug-addicted mother and Jeff Daniels as his burned-out dad. Critic Mike Guiliano will lead the discussion. Coffee and bagels: 9:45 a.m. Showtime: 10:30 a.m. Tickets: $15. Go to

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