Forget the gag caption this week. Look at the composition! The lighting!
For those of you who thought F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was his greatest film, I have news for you: his Faust blows it out of the water.
A little background: the Faust legend dates back as far as the 16th century, and may have its roots in even earlier tales about the dangers of doing business with devils. Once codified as the Faust legend, though, its subject matter proved to be immensely popular. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Faust was a new archetype, a story that could be told and re-told with endless variations to make different points. Depending on the version, Faust might be an old fool, a fearless seeker after truth, a heretic, or a romantic hero. Faust has inspired a number of operas, one of which, Gounod’s Faust, was once the most-performed opera anywhere. Time has dimmed its charms a bit, but Mephistopheles’ serenade Vous qui faites l’endormie is still one of the most creepily romantic things I’ve ever heard. Like Jekyll and Hyde too, Faust was a favorite subject for early filmmakers. Several versions were made prior to Murnau’s 1926 film, but the only one I have been able to locate is a very brief trick film from 1911, viewable on YouTube if you’re interested. It will not impress you.
So Murnau was not selecting a particularly original subject for his last German film when he decided to adapt Goethe’s version of the Faust legend. What he did with it, however, broke new ground in filmmaking.
The story is simple, with a medieval mindset: the devil and an archangel, replaying somewhat the book of Job, bet on the behavior of the aged and benevolent scholar Faust. If the devil can corrupt him, the devil wins the Earth. The devil therefore afflicts Faust’s village with the plague. Neither Faust’s knowledge of medicine nor his prayers can save anyone, and in despair he summons up the devil, who promptly gets down to business. Faust can now save the dying, but it turns out Mephisto’s gift has that vampire clause that says Faust will now flinch away from any crucifixes he sees. This tips off the townsfolk that he’s in league with you-know-who, and they stone him out of the village. Faust is about to drink poison when Mephisto offers him renewed youth and all the par-tee he wants. What Faust wants, once he’s transformed, is the most beautiful woman in the world, so off they fly to the Dutchess of Parma, who currently holds the title of Hottest of the Hot, and debauch her.
A whole bunch of debauches later, Faust is feeling gloomy and unsatisfied. Instead of another party, he wants a glimpse of the little hamlet in which he grew up. When Mephisto obliges him, Faust is overcome with nostalgia and wants to go back to visit. In the crowd of happy peasants making their way to Easter mass, he spots the innocent girl Gretchen. He’s in love! Mephisto assures him he can have the girl without harming her in any way, which is, of course, a lie: as a result of their tryst Gretchen’s mother dies, her brother is murdered, she bears an illegitimate baby who dies in a snowdrift, and she herself gets burned at the stake. Faust, a bit belatedly, realizes she’s in a spot of trouble and rushes back in time to die at the stake with her. I win, says Mephisto! No you don’t, says the archangel, because Love Conquered.
In case you’re thinking you’re not going to waste your time on this sort of thing, I urge you to reconsider. The plot is immaterial. What Murnau does with the camera is decidedly not.
Let’s start with the opening, showing three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse showering their horrors on the earth. This, and a few other scenes in Faust, clearly inspired Disney’s animators for the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia. The devil looms, shadowing the world with huge black wings and glowing eyes. Or what about the stark beauty of the scene in which Faust attempts to save a peasant girl’s dying mother? Or the scene in which Faust summons the devil, complete with a keen special effects storm? Or the marvelously scary first appearance of Mephisto, as a toadlike peasant who solemnly raises his cap to Faust and, when Faust flees, slowly turns his head and follows him with glowing eyes?
If these don’t impress you, I defy you not to be overwhelmed at the scene in which Mephisto and the rejuvenated Faust fly across Europe, in what must have been one of the longest tracking shots over the longest and most complicated miniature landscape models ever made. How did Murnau get that shot? Or what about the elephants at the Court of Parma? Watch them closely. A lot of people have found the interlude with Mephisto’s mock-courtship of Gretchen’s sleazy Aunt Marthe a pointless diversion, but it’s in the original story, after all, and serves the purpose of sly subtext on Faust’s breathlessly selfish courtship of Gretchen. And the scene in which Gretchen stands weeping in the stocks, and the camera lingers on each peasant face in the crowd and each individual reaction, from compassion to distinterested curiosity to spiteful giggling...
A note on babies dying in the cold: Murnau originally wanted Lillian Gish to play Gretchen, possibly on the basis of her performance in D. W. Griffith’s 1920 film Way Down East, in which Gish plays a girl similarly betrayed whose baby dies, and who ends up unconscious on an ice floe speeding down a raging river, rescued at the last moment by the hero. Gish refused the role of Gretchen unless she could have her own photographer, which was a deal-breaker for Murnau. I think it was just as well for all concerned. Little Camilla Horn was a fine actress as Gretchen, and the scene in which she dreamily rocks her child to sleep in the snow curdles the blood. Gish, in the same role, might have provoked snickers in the audience. (What, you lost another baby?)
All the actors in Faust put in a good day’s work, in fact, most notably Emil Jannings as Mephisto. Gösta Ekman in the title role is somewhat less effective playing his younger self, but much more so as the aged philosopher. Even all the unnamed extras have wonderful faces. Murnau seemed to hand-pick every visual element in Faust, as though he selected fragments of stained glass for one glorious window.
Interestingly, he edited about five different versions of Faust for various international markets; the American version even contained a joke about Prohibition. Your best bet in viewing nowadays, as always, is to go with the Kino International 2-disc version.
Altogether Faust scores over Nosferatu in a number of ways. It’s a more thoughtful film, more subtle, with much better acting and camera work; Murnau had mastered his craft by this time. When he’d finished it, Murnau took his skills to Hollywood, where he directed the great classic silent Sunrise. That he ended his career prematurely, smacking into a telephone pole on Pacific Coast Highway under possibly scandalous circumstances, is a tragic irony that doubtless provoked a gleeful smirk from Mephisto.
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and a regular blogger for Tor.com. Her most recent fantasy novel, The House of the Stag, was just nominated for a World Fantasy Award.