(1926) dir. F.W. Murnau
Faust was meant to be the culmination of my Halloween horror films, culminating with a masterful, classic film by one of the true greats of cinema, director F.W. Murnau. I had recently seen The Last Laugh (1924) and have several times seen Nosferatu (1922), so I have been queueing up a lot more of Murnau’s films that are available. I highly recommend it.
Faust, of course, is a legendary folk tale, in fact, the original German title refers to it as A German Folk Legend, and while many of us are familiar with the fact that Goethe’s rendering of the story is a classic of German literature, how many actually have read it or know the story more than that Faust makes a deal with the devil?
I’d seen Jan Svankmejer’s Faust (1994) some time ago, but Svankmeyer’s version is surreal and modernized, so I don’t feel that I really knew a more traditional version of the story.
Murnau’s Faust is an epic film with some wonderful, vivid visuals. The story begins when an angel and the devil wager a bet that the devil can corrupt mankind and rule over Earth. Faust is the pawn in the game, an old alchemist, who strives to do good. The devil casts himself over the village in one of the film’s most striking images, a huge looming Emil Jannings sweeping plague and pestilence into the town. As the villagers die, Faust winds up making a deal with the devil for one day only to try to help people, heal them. When his healing powers are exposed as having come from the devil, Faust tries to kill himself.
But the devil has other plans and tempts him with youth and women. In his lust, Faust consigns himself eternally to the devil, to retain his youth and lust after beautiful women. He tires of this quickly, but is pulled into a web as he lusts after a young, beautiful virginal and saintly girl, Gretchen. Faust seduces her and leads her and her family into death and public humiliation. While everything goes totally “to hell”, they are ultimately redeemed by “love”. It’s epic and grand and while this might sound trite, there is a true beauty to the span of the events and the depiction of the story.
There are some wonderful effects, some more subtle than others, that make this a truly fantastic film. Of Murnau’s films, I would say that the three that I have seen have been distinctly different, but powerful and profound. The images are still swirling in my brain, days since I saw it, still absorbing it. It’s a brilliant film, absolutely.