Is Faust the grandest experiment ever conducted by F.W. Murnau? He literally throws everything at the viewer here in a film that is overshadowed historically by the film that he made following it in 1927,
Faust is based on the Goethe play and stars Gosta Ekmann as Faust, an elderly alchemist, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth and earthly pleasures. Emil Jannings plays the demon Mephisto who escorts Faust around, and generally wreaks all kinds of havoc throughout the story through manipulation. Sex plays a large role in the film, as Faust is initially convinced to take a trial day under the Devil’s rule, but his day as a younger man is about to come to an end before he is able to fornicate with a woman he is wooing to bed. He is convinced to finalize the pact with the Devil therefore in order to keep his “date”. Later in the film, Faust is smitten by a young woman named Gretchen. His temptation to couple with Gretchen becomes not only his downfall, but also that of Gretchen and her family.
I think anyone familiar with the Faust story will not be surprised or particularly excited by the plot mechanics. For me the excitement of the film is in the presentation which is wildly chaotic and absolute fun. Several setpieces and images are quite memorable. From the image of the Devil and his hulking presence towering over the miniature town, to the sequence where Faust is out in the countryside calling the demon Mephisto to come to his side and out of the blackness, the overlaid imagery of Mephisto riding a horse comes closer and closer out of the sky. One of the most striking sequences is toward the end when Gretchen is trudging through the snow with her baby and out of sheer exhaustion plops herself down in the snow. Her scream for “Faust!” after they’ve found her baby dead in the snow is also an example of visual storytelling at its finest in the silent era. Using overlaid imagery, special effects, tracking shots, unique setpieces, Murnau reaches his pinnacle of inventiveness I believe here in this film.
So let’s talk about Emil Jannings who is magnificent as Mephisto. His performance just downright dominates the film and he in general puts most actors from this era to shame. His expressions are what I take away from this film, especially his evil smile. I wonder though, if the performance is a bit more caricatured than say, something like The Doorman from The Last Laugh, which might be his best work of all. There, he is able to express a greater range of emotion. Here, it’s almost like a glorious, extended cameo appearance of sorts, where he gets to have all of the fun and doesn’t have to carry the emotion. As for Murnau, I’ve found that the films I enjoy the best are the ones he made in
The Last Laugh and Faust especially are wonderful, kinetic
examples of his craft. When he went to Germany ,
something for me was not quite the same. Many people consider Hollywood
the greatest silent film of all time though, so maybe it’s just me. Sunrise