Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926) Director: F.W. Murnau
Faust is a classic silent film based on the Germanic legend most popularly put to print in Goethe’s famous work of the same name. It was Murnau’s last German film before moving to Hollywood and completing his classic, Sunrise in 1927. Emil Jannings, the great German actor, stars as Mephisto (or “Mephistopheles” as in the Goethe text).
In a crude parallel of the book of Job, Mephisto has a bet with an angel that he can corrupt a righteous man. Thus a plague comes 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 making a pact with the devil. He helps his fellow citizens at first, but they despise him when it comes to be known that he cannot properly face a crucifix. He is then toyed with by Mephisto with earthly pleasures of youth, sexuality (in the apparition of a beautiful nude woman), and riches. In the end, an ill-fated love attempt 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, telling the story with shadows and odd shaped buildings and streets (we see echoes of the opening sequence later in Disney’s Fantasia). Apparently, Murnau demanded such perfection from the film that his clouds and smokescreens used to portray heaven and hell left actors suspended, nearly passing out, for long periods of time.
Faust is a beautifully brilliant and dark film rife with allusion 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 the Goethe 50 year-long compilation version of the old German legend. Sadly we lost F.W. Murnau in 1931 at the age of 43 in a traffic accident. Who knows what he may have accomplished had he survived into the sound era.