directed by F.W. Murnau
(MGM, 1926)

Faust is just an incredible accomplishment in the art of silent cinema, one of the most ambitious and masterfully directed films of any era. If you've never seen a silent film and wonder if one could even keep your attention, Faust is the film to watch.

Far too many classic early films were either lost or came to us in relatively poor condition, but this digitally mastered version of Faust is remarkably clear and free of white-outs. I'm sure it looks better now that it did when it was released over eight decades ago. Don't go thinking we're only talking about characters standing around conversing, either; F.W. Murnau packed all kinds of incredible special effects into this magnificent piece of filmmaking.

You all know Faust -- that fellow who made a deal with the devil. The story goes back as far as the 15th century, with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe penning the definitive version in the early 19th century. Murnau's Faust differs somewhat from the original two-part drama written by Goethe, supplanting rationalism with mysticism (no one did mysticism better than early German filmmakers). This approach, among other things, allows Murnau to open the film with nothing less than jaw-dropping visuals and effects. The story is heralded by the grim image of the apocalyptic horsemen thundering through the clouds, leading us to a confrontation between Mephisto (Satan) and an archangel over the control of the Earth.

A wager is proposed, with dominion over the Earth set to depend upon the fate of one man's soul. That man is, of course, Faust, a good man targeted for evil temptation by the cursed one. Knowing he could not tempt Faust directly, Mephisto uses his own compassion against him. As a devastating plague is unleashed among Faust's fellow citizens, Mephisto casts his dark shadow over the landscape quite literally, as we see him hovering over the entire village. That, to me, is one of the most memorable and iconographic cinematic sights I've ever seen.

As his friends and neighbors beg Faust (Gosta Ekman) to save them from the plague, his unanswered prayers bring him to the point of despair. He actually summons Mephisto himself (in another incredible special effects-laden scene). After some deliberation, Mephisto (Emil Jannings) convinces Faust to sign a pact for one day only, and that proves to be an offer Faust can't refuse. A little later, though, Mephisto brings in the big guns -- the promise of restored youth. Extending the contract from one day to eternity is basically just a formality at this point.

All of his new powers don't truly satisfy Faust, though, and so he sets his sights on a lovely, pure maiden by the name of Gretchen (Camilla Horn). The whole mood of the film changes at this point, with the art of wooing temporarily displacing the clouds of doom hanging over the first half of the film -- but this is only a prelude to true tragedy. As Daniel Johnston says, "Don't play cards with Satan, he'll deal you an awful hand," and that is exactly what happens here. It gets pretty darned depressing, really, making it hard for the viewer to see how Faust can possibly redeem himself for all of the misery he has caused. Murnau doesn't pull any punches when it comes to establishing the central theme of the story.

Thanks to earlier successes such as Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, Murnau had complete control over the making of Faust. Something of a perfectionist, Murnau made sure that every aspect of every single shot met with his satisfaction. It's obvious that the man was a genius, as even the contrast of light and shadow reinforces the central motif of the story he is telling. The special effects seem years and years ahead of their time. Even the makeup is remarkably well done (I would never have guessed that Gosta Ekman played both the old and young versions of Faust, as the older version looks genuinely old). And the acting? Top-notch, all the way. Ekman is superb, Jannings becomes the very personification of Mephisto, and an inexperienced Horn is simply enchanting as Gretchen. (The role of Gretchen was actually written for Lillian Gish, but she bowed out because Murnau refused her demand to have her personal cameraman shoot the film.) The musical score, composed and conducted by Timothy Brock, is a wonderful counterpart to the film, as well.

In virtually every way possible, F.W. Murnau's Faust is nothing less than a cinematic masterpiece.

review by
Daniel Jolley

27 March 2010

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