Directed by F.W. Murnau
Written by Gerhart Hauptman, Hans Kyser, based on the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Produced by Erich Pommer
Cinematography by Carl Hoffmann
Edited by Elfi Böttrich
Universum Film (Germany), MGM (US)
Amazon streaming (1:47)
World literature is filled with stories of men and women selling their souls to the devil, so much so that even in 1926 such tales were old hat. Even Goethe’s Faust, in its earliest (yet incomplete) form, was published in 1790. I guess you could say that such stories go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Yet in 1926, no one had ever seen anything quite like Faust. Many might say that this silent film – at least in a visual sense – has never been surpassed. They may be right.
As the film opens, the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) boasts to an Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) that he can corrupt and destroy the soul of a righteous man. If he can, the devil will rule the earth. Soon the devil sends a plague to earth and an elderly alchemist named Faust (Gösta Ekman, above) tries everything in his power to stop the rampant deaths from spreading. Frustrated, he throws all his books of alchemy – as well as his Bible – into the fire. Yet in one book, Faust reads that he can call upon the devil for unlimited power.
You know the rest. The story may be familiar, but the visual storytelling was then and remains now nothing short of spectacular. An early shot of Mephisto with his wings literally covering the sky is something right out of a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Murnau’s canvas is enormous because his story is one of cosmic proportions. There’s obviously no CGI here and I’m not sure CGI could even produce the same nightmarish effect. Although a 21st century viewer might come away thinking the special effects in Faust crude, he/she can’t deny their power, a power that would almost certainly be lacking if computer-generated techniques were used.
The film also involves Mephisto restoring Faust’s youth, leading to a romantic encounter with a young woman named Gretchen (Camilla Horn), which causes Faust to rethink the 24-hour “trial period” that he agreed to with Mephisto. These scenes (essentially the middle portion of the film) are less intriguing than the opening and closing sections. I think part of the reason could have something to do with the absolute wonder and terror of those scenes. Regardless of your worldview and whether or not you believe in God, the devil, heaven, hell, or anything remotely spiritual, Faust displays powerful imagery that fills you with awe and not a little bit of trepidation. Although the film contains a few light moments, including Jannings’s frequent over-the-top satanic looks and mannerisms, by the time we reach the end, you’ve forgotten anything even approaching levity.
Faust was the last German film Murnau made before coming to America and filming his masterpiece Sunrise (1927). Another masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922), is his most famous work, but after Sunrise, Murnau only made three other films, one of which has never been found (4 Devils). He died in an automobile accident in 1931 at the age of 42. We’ll never know what kind of sound films Murnau might have made, but of the 13 pictures that have survived (another eight are lost), at least six (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Faust, Sunrise, City Girl, Tabu) are considered of great importance if not outright classics.
Faust is available to stream on Amazon (for free if you have Amazon Prime) and on DVD and Blu-ray. (The best edition appears to be the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, Region B-locked.)