F.W. Murnau’s Faust, Starring Robert Bruce

Courtesy Robert Bruce

by Carey Rutherford

Robert Bruce really likes this movie. In fact, he says he’d be willing to tour with it alone, dropping all other projects, if it would pay the bills.

“Old films are often classics just by default. . . and of course the silent era has it’s own particular brand of cinema. . . . it’s a different type of experience.

“I’ve been in the habit of checking out (silent films) I thought were good candidates to work with. For example, I’ve been through virtually every Greta Garbo silent film, (but) there was something missing for me. I couldn’t grab onto anything.”

And you can accept Mr. Bruce’s judgement. He hasbeen composing music for, and performing these compositions with, silent films throughout the U.S. and Canada for nearly eight years now. Originally he had a Buster Keaton focus, but as he mentioned he’s been branching out.

And the results are a little bit amazing. To quote my Seeing Eye Buddy #4: “I’d be engrossed in the film and the feeling the music created, and then suddenly I’d go, ‘Waitaminute. That music is being played by a person!’”

It was, I’d have to admit, a little bit remarkable. Over two hours of film with the live accompaniment of a dedicated composer and silent-film enhancer.

Robert stresses that he doesn’t intend to slip into the background with his performance, doesn’t want to just be the film’s wallpaper, nor slavishly emulate the musical era that accompanied the silent films of the 1920’s. He describes Faust as Murnau’s recognized masterpiece, in which he combined elements from other art forms in a manner rarely seen, and Robert wants to create something that is up to that standard.

Keep in mind that, when Faust was released in 1926, virtually none of the films in circulation had their own musical scores: there was simply no time for the performers in the local theatres to learn music for every film that passed through town. If you followed a movie as it toured through our province, for example, you’d hear “whatever the house musician played in Calgary, or Lethbridge, or Edmonton: you’ll have three completely different scores, because whoever’s playing in the theatre is providing the music.”

Unless you were following Faust as it toured Western Canada and the U.S. in October. If you were, you’d hear a carefully researched, composed and adapted landscape of sound environments which seem to perfectly accompany, like a good bandmate, a performance that was recorded nearly a century ago.

There was a particular, touching, moment in the music when I was drawn out of watching a movie, and was momentarily hearing a delicate song highlight the presence on-screen of a beautiful young girl, who is undoubtedly no longer of this world (85 years later). It demonstrated, for me, the power of the music that was swirling around our heads while the light and shadow played out its drama on the screen. Beautiful.

Go for the film, or go for the music, but you’ll be hard-pressed to separate them.