Faust (1926)

Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.

Before discussing F.W. Murnau’s Faust—one of the least-seen of the director’s great films, until recent restorations, revivals, and DVD releases—it’s instructive to do some math. The most-expensive film in German history at the time of its 1926 release (Metropolis would surpass it the following the year), Faust appeared 120 years after the completion of the first part of the Goethe masterpiece that inspired it. A bit more math: It was released 94 years after the publication of the second part of Goethe’s Faust and 67 years after the Gounod’s Goethe-inspired opera Faust, which made the story popular on a scale even Goethe couldn’t accomplish. That’s a smaller stretch of time than the 85 years that separate us, in the year 2011, from Murnau’s film. 

I bring this up not to just rattle off numbers, but because numbers matter here. Film has drawn a line in the sand of history. Anyone reading this comes from a generation that has experienced life as something that could be captured and preserved, that at any moment could be relived. The past is something we can watch again, even if we can never return to it. Film has a way of making the past feel accessible in ways that the eras before film simply aren’t. If I want to see Shakespeare’s London, I have to use scholarship and imagination. If I want to see Virginia Woolf’s, I can simply go to YouTube. But while Dec. 28, 1895, when the Lumiere brothers held the first public exhibition of their films, marked a turning point in how we look at the world, it didn’t erase the past, whose stories crept into film almost from the moment the medium began. 

Some stories have a way of persisting no matter how much time passes. For Faust, Goethe drew on Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play Doctor Faustus, which in turn drew on various printed legends of a Dr. Faust, which in turn most likely drew on widely circulated stories that may or may not have been inspired by a real person or persons alive in the 15th and 16th century. The details change, but the story’s key elements remain the same. A man of great learning, Faust grows frustrated with the limits of human knowledge and strikes a deal with Mephistopheles, who agrees to be his servant in return of Faust’s soul. When and how he obtains the soul changes from version to version, as does what he decides to do with Mephistopheles in his thrall. In Murnau’s film, as in Goethe, he becomes young and falls in love with a beautiful and innocent woman named Gretchen. Faust subsequently abandons Gretchen then returns to her as she faces punishment for, in a moment of madness, killing the infant born of their affair. Forgiven, she’s taken to heaven, and in the Murnau version, as in Goethe, the forgiveness extends to a repentant Faust (albeit much sooner here).

By the time he made Faust, Murnau had already directed the still-terrifying horror classic Nosferatu (an unauthorized variation on Dracula), and one of the most emotionally charged films of any age, The Last Laugh, in which Emil Jannings plays a man laid low by age and unkindness. After Faust, he’d go to Hollywood to direct Sunrise, where he’d apply the same masterful combination of technical innovation and emotional directness to elevate a familiar story of love, unfaithfulness, and forgiveness into high art. Faust fits easily beside those films, sharing with The Last Laugh and Sunrise a command of high-pitched personal drama, with Nosferatu the capacity to terrify, and with all of the above a facility to work with good and evil as grand themes, and to make those themes as big as bold as the play of light and shadows in a darkened theater would allow. That someone would film Faust was inevitable. That Murnau chose it was fortunate.

Why? A clip from the film can say more than I could:

That’s Jannings as Mephistopheles, looming over Faust’s soon-to-be-plague-riddled city, an image that gives me the shivers every time I see it. Murnau achieved the effect through simple means; Jannings is in costume standing above a miniature city. But it’s as powerful of a special effect as has ever been put to film. When people talk about the physicality of practical effects being lost in the CGI era, this is what they mean.

It’s a simple effect, but not a cheap one. In the essay accompanying Kino’s restored DVD edition of the film, film historian Jan Christopher Horak writes about Faust as the rare instance of “an uncompromising art film made with the massive budget of an international blockbuster.” Murnau had all the muscle of UFA, Germany’s national studio, behind him to tell a story he subtitled “a German Folk saga.” That allowed for one fantastic scene after another, including a night flight across Europe on the back of Mephistopheles’ cloak and moments that established the full scale of the action by seeming to take place beyond the bounds of earth. The image above occurs moments after Mephistopheles wagers with an angel that he can win the soul of Faust and, with it, all of humanity, portrayed with a stunning contrast between black and white.

Those, of course, aren’t cosmic beings but men wearing costumes (in the case of Jannings, a costume of the size that suggests the devil indulges the sin of gluttony as often as the other Seven Deadlies), but for Faust to work, you have to get past that. It’s not hard. One advantage that silent movies have over films of the sound era is a freedom to not be beholden to realism. A world gone silent feels halfway dreamlike already. Murnau’s gift for image-making and insistence on shooting the movie entirely on sets where he could exert the utmost control over the film only make that sensation stronger. Even acting behind a sizable amount of old-age make-up, the Swedish actor Gösta Ekman gives a relatively restrained performance as Faust. Jannings is anything but restrained as a lustful, leering Mephistopheles, but the contrast makes sense. The man looks and behaves like a man and the devil like someone doing a horrible caricature of humanity. 

Together they enact a drama that’s about nothing less than the fate of humankind and whether we deserve to be forgiven for the evil we do. The film arrives at an answer, but only after great deliberation. Faust renounces God with the best of intentions, hoping to cure those around him of the plague using knowledge granted to him by his Satanic pact. When the villagers reject his cure because of its origins, he opts for a life of pleasure, regaining his youth and sleeping with the Queen Of Parma, who lives in all the luxury that life on Earth has to offer. It’s not enough.

After finding Faust bored and contemplating his fate on a mountainside, Mephistopheles asks him what he wants (“a woman, a card game, an orgy?”) only to be rebuffed. What he wants is a return to the innocence of youth. Going back to his hometown, he thinks he’s found it. But he can only spoil innocence, not reclaim it. In the end he discovers that only God can grant what he wants. His bargain had given him everything at too high a price.

The time when anyone, even a talent like Murnau, could make such a film would soon draw to a close. Sound was the coming thing, and with it came the end of the kind of fantasy he created here, an operatic clash of light and dark filled with high seriousness that makes no attempt to ground itself in the real world. We’ll never know how he would have handled the changes. By the time Faust premiered, Murnau was already in America. After Sunrise, he made 4 Devils (now lost) and City Girl, both silent films modified with sound elements, and his final film, Tabu, which was released after Murnau’s death via car accident at 42.

His films all live on, but Faust must have had a particular resonance in the years to come. The stress of making Faust led Ekman to start using cocaine, a habit that would become an addiction. He died at the age of 47. Jannings would strike his own deal with the devil, starring in pro-Nazi films and cozying up to the Third Reich. The story goes that, when the war ended, he carried the Academy Award he won for The Way Of All Flesh and The Last Command as a kind of protective totem to show the Allied forces. That sounds almost too perfect to be true. But even if the Oscar did save his skin, it couldn’t save his career. He never made a film after 1945. 

All that was later. Here, he’s the ideal silent-age devil, giving Murnau’s moral fantasy the embodiment of temptation and excess. He’s part of what makes Faust work, but it’s the combination of elements that makes the film so extraordinary. The film suggests that Murnau saw bringing Faust to the screen as a responsibility, that he had to do right by a story previously realized not just in Goethe’s poetry and Marlowe’s play but in songs, puppet theaters, and carnival shows. (The film acknowledges the lattermost with shots of a devil-suited clown entertaining a crowd at a street fair.) In his fourth best-known film, Murnau found a way to collapse the years between the era of celluloid and klieg lights, the height of German romanticism, and the first rumors of a learned man who decided to bargain away his soul, finding new ways to tell an old story too meaningful to fade away. 

Next: Mondo Cane (1962)
Then: I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

Filed Under: Film

More Secret Cinema