“The greatest miracle of all is man’s freedom to choose between good and evil”
Director F.W. Murnau left Germany with a bang thanks to his big budget visual masterpiece Faust. Adapted like so many other versions from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s classic take (Gerhart Hauptmann and Hans Kyser provide the titles), this rendition sets itself against the Black Plague and mankind’s hope for salvation. A massive trial to overcome, the disease becomes a cleansing of sorts weeding out the righteous with faith to carry them through. If any Earthly man fit that bill it was Faust’s (Swedish actor Gösta Ekman in glorious make-up) alchemist seeking scientific answers alongside his devout spirituality. So when Mephisto (Emil Jannings‘ Satan) wagers he can destroy this aging man’s divinity, the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) doesn’t even break a sweat betting God’s rule that he won’t.
Thus the plague enters Faust’s small village—smoke dispersed by a larger-than-life Mephisto looming over it with a mischievous grin. Bodies begin falling and everyone turns to Faust for a cure. Being the most intelligent man among them, he knows he can do it with God’s guiding hand. But his potion fails to revive a woman on her deathbed and his faith’s shaken. In a rage he burns his entire library of resource texts, pausing on the Bible before heaving it along with the rest. He reaches a critical juncture and the Devil is present to plant a seed of dark magic as solution. A fateful, fiery page turn later and Faust is at a dirt crossroads conjuring assistance from the one entity he never wanted to call.
What follows is exactly what you’d expect from a Faustian tale of man caving to the allure of pleasure. First it’s the miracle of life; then youth, sex, and anything else a newborn hedonist could desire. Mephisto is winning and yet Faust isn’t quite without hope. He grows tired and bored of the excess, wishing instead to return home and seek a new life to restart with the Devil as his servant. It’s there he falls in love with young Gretchen (Camilla Horn), a churchgoer with a happily quaint life alongside her mother (Frida Richard) and brother Valentin (William Dieterle). Mephisto knows she’s the type of person able to bring Faust back into the light, but his pawn is steadfast in pursuit. So Satan intervenes with abject tragedy.
This portion of the film proves the weakest mostly because it takes up half the runtime and is mostly devoid of the memorably stunning visual effects from the start. It is ultimately the meatiest as far as plot is concerned, though, because it’s where Faust learns that Mephisto has been leading him astray despite calling himself a servant. Many versions of the tale continue its tragic denouement to an inevitably depressing end yet Murnau leaves a sliver of optimism instead. You could say this counteracts the pitch-black nature of the drama preceding it, but a flicker of hope within a vacuum of despair is somewhat welcome. I just wouldn’t have minded it happening sooner and without Mephisto’s odd comedic tryst paralleling Faust’s romance in the meantime.
What I truly loved was the atmosphere of Act I whether the haze of Heaven surrounding the Archangel’s wings or the darkness shrouding Mephisto in shadow, his horned beast cropped off the screen’s bottom edge to reinforce his position in Hell. The aesthetic in Faust’s laboratory is wonderfully vibrant with light and electricity despite the absence of color and the many super-imposition effects appear too advanced for 1926. Jannings’ towering, demonic visage consuming the village below is seamless and the ethereal transitions through smoke or magic feel authentic in their camera tricks where today’s CGI often feels cartoonish. It’s no wonder Faust became the most expensive movie produced by Germany’s UFA (Metropolis would surpass it a year later) nor that it couldn’t recoup its budget.
Whatever failures upon release—multiple versions of differing lengths and alternate titles (German and English) were made—it’s certainly lauded with praise today. You can’t blame Hollywood for pilfering Murnau afterwards to utilize his immense talent, their union creating what many believe is his best straightaway (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans). I’ll see for myself as Faust has invigorated me into working through his oeuvre. While reputation kept his name at the forefront of my consciousness, watching this film has lit a fire to make good on finally catching up with the rest. His mastery of mood and character shines through each frame and his meticulous style begs us to freeze each composition to discover every last detail. It’s amazing to think it’s ninety years old.