Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926) Director: F.W. Murnau
Based on Goethe’s classic Germanic legend, Faust was F.W. Murnau’s final film made in Germany before migrating to the mecca of movie-making in Southern California where he was soon to complete his critically lauded film Sunrise in 1927. Emil Jannings, the great German actor, stars as Mephisto in Faust (or “Mephistopheles” as in the Goethe text) –perhaps this is a bit of dark irony that a prominent Nazi-sympathizing actor also played the role of the devil.
In a crude bit pf plagiarism from the book of Job, Mephisto makes a bet with an angel that he can corrupt a righteous man. Thus a plague is cast down upon a German city, and frustrated at the response from a ‘deaf heaven,’ Mephisto casts his alchemy and theological books away (including the Bible) and he turns to a pact with the devil. He helps his fellow citizens at first, but they despise him when it is revealed that he cannot properly face a crucifix. He is then toyed with by Mephisto: earthly pleasures of youth, sexuality (in the apparition of a beautiful nude woman), and riches are all presented before him. In the end, an ill-fated infatuation leads Faust to death by fire, but he ascends into heaven as ‘love conquers all’ –a dubious ending clearly meant to placate the particular prejudices of the time.
Along with Nosferatu, Murnau’s other great silent horror classic, some consider Faust among the great horror films of all time. The scenes are rich and mesmerizing, the story is ensconced with shadowy and oddly shaped edifices (here, we see echoes of the opening sequence of Disney’s Fantasia). Apparently, Murnau demanded such perfection from his staff that even the clouds and smokescreens used to portray heaven and hell left actors suspended for long periods of time, nearly losing consciousness in the air.
Faust is a beautifully brilliant and dark film rife with allusions to the German Expressionist movement of the day. It is haunting, and Jannings delivers yet another impressive performance. It is an excellent film, even if it strays somewhat from Goethe’s version of the legend. Sadly we lost F.W. Murnau in 1931 at the age of 43 in a car accident. Who knows what he may have accomplished had he survived into the sound era.