- Year: 1926
- Director: F.W. Murnau
- Starring: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn
Well, because I’m sure you all want to read a blogger talk about a 1920s silent film from the German Expressionism era, here goes nothing—F.W. Murnau’s Faust. F. W. Murnau was one of the most famous silent film directors, and gave us one of the prototypical horror films, 1922’s Nosferatu, and went on to give us Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, often considered one of the greatest films of all time.
The legend of Faust has been told many times throughout literature and theater, and Murnau’s film take some notes from both the classic folk tale and the first half of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Some portray Faust as more sympathetic, while others show him as a hedonist. Murnau’s film leans toward the sympathetic, at least at first, but definitely shows both sides.
In Heaven, the devil and an archangel are having a bet about the goodness of man, with the devil believing that he can corrupt a man’s soul.
Oh yeah, anytime I feel the need to insert a sarcastic comment, I’m going to have to do it on a silent film title card. Anyway, the angel and Satan make a bet on Faust’s soul, and if the devil wins, he gets control of the ENTIRE. FREAKING. EARTH.
Alright, alright, but if the angel wins, the devil goes away forever right? No, well what happens if the angel wins?
Actually, no conditions are ever established, making this bet not really a bet at all. It’s more of a competition. This probably came up in the angel’s quarterly review. For the devil’s first move, he contaminates an entire village with the plague in this now famous shot.
This impressive scene also went on to inspire the classic “Night on Bald Mountain” in Disney’s Fantasia. Oscar winning actor Emil Jannings plays Mephisto here, and he balances the campy with the pure evil. However, the form he takes on for most of the movie is far less creepy than his old beggar form with which he first appears to Faust.
As more and more people in the village begin dying of the plague, the devil offers Faust (Gösta Ekman) whatever he wants in return for his soul. Faust realizes he could help the people of his village and agrees to a 24 hour trial run.
Although Faust tries to help the villagers, they see he cannot face a cross that a sick girl is holding and try to stone him. Although he perhaps should have realized that this was a sign of things to come, Faust asks for his youth back and runs away.
Faust pays such a great attention to the visuals, which is perhaps a given considering it’s a silent film, but just look at the older and younger Faust, and consider that they are played by the same actor.
The sets and endless use of smoke just add to the atmosphere, and there are no effects or scenes that ever take you out of the movie.
The 24 hour trial run ends right as Faust has won the love of a foreign princess, so of course he agrees to a lifelong contract with the devil. However, the devil enjoys committing crimes along the way and framing Faust for them, just because he feels like it, which kind of gets in the way. Faust only fell in love with this princess because the devil killed her lover.
Surprisingly quickly, Faust grows tired of his new lifestyle… and I mean really quickly… and reconsiders his life.
He decides to return home, where he is immediately attracted to the innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn), something which even the devil is opposed to. When the devil, who just in the course of this movie has infected an entire town due to a wager and killed a man for fun (in addition to you know, being the devil), thinks it is a bad idea, perhaps you should reconsider. The power of lust ultimately prevails and the devil makes the two fall in love, as he meanwhile woos the girl’s aunt in a completely useless and not-that-funny bit of slapstick.
As Gretchen and Faust look to consummate their relationship, the devil wakes up Gretchen’s mother, who sees what is going on and drops dead. Still not satisfied, the devil goes and tells Gretchen’s brother, Valentin, what she is up to. I understand that in most of these stories, things will never work out happily for someone who sells their soul. However, in this story, the devil is doing this because of a bet. All he bet was that Faust’s soul would be corrupted. If he gives Faust years of happiness on earth and takes his soul at the end, he’s won. Is he doing this extra trickery just because he feels like it? If there is still a possibility for Faust’s soul to be saved (which the ending shows there is), why is he letting anything bad happen to Faust?
Valentin returns and tries to kill Faust, but the devil stabs him in the back. Amusingly, the devil runs around the town, waking up the residents and screaming “MURDER!”
The shots of the devil running around the village work really well, giving us a feel for the closed-in community, and also the quite unsettling shot shown above. From beginning to end, Faust is such a visual treat, and this scene is one of the most memorable.
The rest of the film is pretty predictable, as things only get worse for Gretchen. Her brother calls her a harlot with his dying breath, and she is mocked in the streets. Of course, she gives birth to Faust’s child, but eventually abandons the baby when she hallucinates a cradle. Faust has of course left by this point, but he returns when he learns she will be burned at the stake.
Faust curses the wish for youth, which the devil takes as an un-wish, and makes Faust old again. The old Faust reunites with Gretchen as she is being burned, and of course she sees him for the man he was.
Their souls ascend to heaven, and the archangel explains to the devil that Faust’s soul was not corrupted due to the power of love (which I assume was a part of the Huey Lewis clause the devil merely skimmed over). Since this movie did one day get made…
It would appear the archangel won the bet. I’m not sure how it was the power of love, seeing as how Faust wished Gretchen to fall in love with him, and it’s not really a selfless act, as she’s dying too. It’s just a crazy final “I love you” which somehow saves his soul.
The story of Faust 1926 doesn’t have a lot of flair to it, but the visuals make up for that. The performances are good all around, although the devil may perhaps be a bit too campy at times. Murnau’s wonderful direction still looks great today, and the music really tells the story where words cannot. Let’s take a look at the final score.
Story (12/20 Points)
It’s pretty standard, and the hedonism portion lasts shorter than you would expect it too. Some of the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense, but this is a commonly done tale for a reason—it lends itself to good stories.
Faust (15/20 Points)
Gösta Ekman is perfectly believable as both the old, weary Faust and the young, rejuvenated one. There may not be any particular scenes that really stand out, but he carries the thing.
Devil (13/20 Points)
Emil Jannings, on the other hand, has some great moments as Mephisto or the Devil or whatever you want to call him, particularly the screaming bloody murder scene and the old beggar scenes. However, he also has some scenes that are a bit too over the top, and that hurts the film a bit.
Supporting Cast (9/20 Points)
I suppose it’s not Camilla Horn’s fault that Gretchen’s character is rather flat, but she doesn’t bring too much extra to the performance. The villagers are enjoyable for their brief moments on screen, but no one really steals the show.
Experience (19/20 Points)
Murnau was such a great director, and many of the techniques here still hold up. Like so many of the old horror classics, it’s a very eerie film, and the music is really colorful too.
FINAL SCORE: 68%
If a two-hour silent film interests you, check it out. It’s worth watching. A lot of the images will stick with you, and the performances and story are good enough to keep you invested.
Next week, I’ll be taking a look at 1941’s The Devil and Daniel Webster.