I always kick off the month of October with this Expressionist masterpiece. I hope you enjoy it–or will enjoy it–as much as I do!
Some of the greatest silent films can be described as collective dreams. They capture familiar legends, familiar places, and certain eras. These films are Art, and Art doesn’t age, not the way many older movies do. One of these works of Art is F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), a masterpiece of fantasy that’s often overlooked in favor of other German Expressionist works–such as Murnau’s own Nosferatu. Strange, considering that did nothing less than draw upon some of the most iconic imagery of good vs. evil in the world.
The old tale of “Faust” dates back at least to the 16th century. It’s been told and retold countless times, but its basic plot is this: Faust is a scholar who’s grown dissatisfied with life, and who makes a pact with the devil Mephistopheles to be given magic powers for a set period of time. In the very early versions of the story, Faust’s soul is irredeemably corrupted and Mephistopheles carries him off to Hell. In later, more complex versions, Mephistopheles wagers with an archangel for the soul of Faust, and Faust also falls in love with the innocent Gretchen who then pleads for his salvation.
This story, with its epic qualities and spiritual underpinnings, definitely excited Murnau’s directorial imagination. Would it be possible to do justice to such a familiar, broad legend within the confining space of a movie theater screen?
For a genius like Murnau, yes. His Faust is a strongly Expressionist world of firelight and leaning shadows, crowded medieval lanes and creeping mist. This world is surreal, deliberately composed of artificial sets, but deeply haunting. We soar through miniature moonlit landscapes, see demonic eyes peering through the gloom, and witness the wild ride of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, spreading the black death. “The portals of darkness are open and the shadows of the dead hunt over the earth…”
The opening is extraordinary, as we see the massive, glowing-eyed devil facing off against the towering archangel. “A wager: I will wrest Faust’s soul away from God!” As the threatening shadow of the devil’s wings covers the village, the sharp-gabled buildings seem to be huddling together for warmth.
The elderly alchemist Faust is granted some complexity in Murnau’s version. He’s depicted as working feverishly to find a cure for the black plague as it slays people left and right, praying to God for guidance. Only when all his efforts fail does he despair and turn to more sinister powers that be. Actor Gösta Ekman did a remarkable job of portraying Faust both as the aged scholar and as a ruddy-lipped young man–helped by some truly stellar makeup.
Emil Jannings is also remarkable as the cunning Mephisto. Being a great character actor to begin with, Jannings must’ve relished the opportunity Murnau gave him. His black-clad figure, with a mocking grin barely disguising his contempt for humankind, seems to have stepped from an old illustration. I’ve seen his performance described as “campy.” In a way, but that could be partly due to that satiny costume–probably based on stage costumes that few actors could get away with today. Some humor is injected into the role as well, particularly in the scenes with Marthe Schwerdtlein (they’re almost a bit out of place, but are present in old stage versions).
The virtuous Gretchen is played by Camilla Horn, whose modest dress and smoothly parted hair are reminiscent of a Madonna (we later see more explicit Madonna and Child references). Her love scenes with Ekman beneath flowering trees seem to be inspired by Romanticist paintings–although they are still tinged with Expressionist shadows.
The acting style itself is very deliberately Expressionistic, where the gestures become part of the overall composition and movements contribute to how the emotions are paced. (This can be seen in some very early films too, when the dominant acting styles were still very theatrical–some of the Biograph shorts are good examples.)
I’ve seen a few viewer reviews of Faust which comment on the “exaggerated” acting. Naturally, this is chalked up to its being made during the silent era. But that’s a huge misconception–realistic acting styles abounded back then, too. Realism simply wasn’t the only style, as it generally seems to be today. Faust is highly stylized in every detail, and thus, so is the acting.
The characters themselves are stylized as well. You feel, somehow, that you’ve seen them all before, that the figure of Faust in his heavy robe and long beard was something you had glimpsed in an old book, or that the Devil slowly tipping his cap was something you had heard described in an old poem. The first shot of the Devil, sitting alone after Faust has fled the frame and slowly turning his head to gaze at you with glowing eyes, is still one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen–like something remembered from a childhood nightmare.
One of the great strengths of Faust is its speed. A slightly-quicker-than-life speed was common in the silent era, and it varied a great deal. In some cases, it almost matched natural movement, and in others, it could be surprisingly fast (as in some short comedies). The quickness of Faust is absolutely essential; all the dramatic lighting and camera angles in the world couldn’t give it that same otherworldly quality. It couldn’t have been filmed any other way.
Faust might be a bit harder for uninitiated modern viewers to get into than other German Expressionist classics, mainly because of its plot. It draws heavily on a background of folklore, poetry, theology, and myth. The story of good vs. evil, virtue vs. sin, and righteousness vs. hypocrisy is indebted to centuries of Christian thought and tradition. To put it mildly, it can go over a few people’s heads. Faust has more in common with the last 2,000 years than with trendy 21st century realism.
But for anyone looking beyond the beaten tracks of popular movies, Faust is an awe-inspiring experience. In a ranking of Murnau’s work, I might even place it above the venerable Nosferatu for its technical brilliance and type of transcendence that’s difficult to describe.
I watch it about once a year, on a dark autumn night when all is quiet. And every year for those two hours I fall under its singular spell.
- There were five versions of Murnau’s Faust made for different markets, of varying lengths, with some missing a few scenes. I have the version with English title cards, which includes a full orchestral score.
- Until Metropolis debuted a year later, this was the most expensive German film.
- Leni Riefenstahl apparently wanted to play the role of Gretchen. Yes. Leni Riefenstahl.
- This was Camilla Horn’s first major role. She had been chosen in place of Lillian Gish, who would only consent to the film unless cinematographer Charles Rosher was also hired.
- This film helped inspire the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney’s Fantasia.
- The “landscape” that Faust and Mephisto fly over featured trees made of reeds and rushes. The “clouds” were made of glass wool.
- Murnau took so long to film the scenes involving the archangel that the actor’s arm became too tired to keep holding the sword.
- The real flames around Gretchen’s pyre made the set so hot that Camilla Horn was said to have fainted.
- Several interesting behind-the-scene stills are available, such as this one of Jannings being prepped for an early scene: