By Jeremy Carr.
There is the sense while watching the 1926 silent German masterwork Faust that director F.W. Murnau and company are showing off a bit. With a wealth of money at their disposal and a hefty allotment of time (an essentially unlimited budget, finally reaching a reported two million marks, and a six-month shoot), those involved in this lavish production put on quite the show. As Murnau’s final German film and UFA’s flagship production, there is something of an all or nothing quality to the elaborate design of the picture. And while Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) would in some ways supersede it in scope the following year, Faust retains its impressive effectiveness via an artisanal aesthetic and a supernatural flavor, preserving the contemporary German preoccupation with the uncanny while magnifying cinema’s technical capabilities.
Against the familiar story chronicling a man tempted by the devil, the imagery crafted by Murnau, cinematographer Carl Hoffmann, and art directors Robert Herlth and Walter Röhrig is what stands out the most. Having already established himself as a master visual stylist on the heels of Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), and The Last Laugh (1924), Murnau here embarks on his most ambitious project to date, arguably the most ambitious project Weimar-era Germany had seen to this point. It is an extraordinary synthesis of painterly, Expressionistic construction and the special effects modern technology and ingenuity increasingly made feasible.
As the story goes, as shown here anyway, an archangel strikes a deal with Mephisto (Emil Jannings), hinging on the view that while man’s ability to choose is the greatest of gifts, a decent man, like Faust (Gösta Ekman), will always choose what is right. “The wager is on,” declares Mephisto, and so it begins. As a plague sweeps—or more literally, blows— through town, these become trying times for the populace, and the alchemist Faust struggles to find a cure for the sickness. In the ensuing pandemonium is the first of two scenes where one sees the fury of the masses—a common German film scenario—as the citizenry seek solutions and solace in their desperation, their panic leading to misbehavior and hysteria, all of which fuels the flames of destruction (as Siegfried Kracauer may very well have questioned years later, “sound familiar?”).
This is a “German folktale,” as an early title card proclaims, and as much as the film’s moral message may transcend nationalities (and indeed, the film itself was global in design), there is much about the movie that resounds to the tune of distinctly Germanic notions, or at least those so frequently manifest during the time of its production. Relating to the power of Mephisto is Faust’s continuation and development of recurrent themes of the period, specifically that of authoritative control, individual greed, and moral compromise.
In the early sequences, to at once emphasize his thoughtful nature and to set up the marked contrast with his more vibrant personality as the film proceeds, Faust is seen as a brooding, woefully contemplative figure. As animated as the townsfolk are, he, on the contrary, moves rigidly, wearily. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long before he too loses hope. Tempted by the prospects brought forth by Mephisto, he goes into the offer for aid with the best of intentions, to help the hungry and the sick. But once the deal is made, things predictably take a turn for the worse. And the true temptation comes afterward, when Faust is provoked with the prospect of youthful appearance and vitality. This choice has less to do with the welfare of others than it does his own personal gain, the allure deriving from a model physicality, one that would be echoed in German cinema from Metropolis to Olympia (1938) and beyond.
Just as the two potential lives Faust could live are in sharp contrast, so too are the worlds in which he can inhabit. The shadowy town at the start of the picture is despairingly grim. With Caligari-esque interior arrangements, compact angular structures, and abstruse rooftops and passageways, the opening segments of the movie are despairing indeed, setting the initial tone of despondency and building to the antithetical midsection where Murnau switches visual gears and depicts a more naturally attractive, wholesome, and hospitable locale. Here there are good times to be sure, but here they are not meant to last; it is but a momentary respite for Faust as well as the viewer. The imagery is luminous in its soft, lush luster, carrying over a hazy sheen that illuminates even the bleak opening, but the radiant earthiness of “home” is a teasing reminder of that which Faust can no longer merely possess. Sweet for a time with its idyllic pastoral beauty and a burgeoning romance, the territory is ripe for inevitable corruption and violence.
For all his capabilities, Mephisto seems content with trivial disruption … for the most part. By wintertime, the world has moved on, apparently not affected by the evil Faust hath wrought. Little has changed except for those few touched by his wicked ways. Sadly, though, shouldering the worst of it all is Faust’s suffering love, Gretchen (Camilla Horn). Her torment is what finally spurs Faust into action; more than the sorrow of many, to see the one he truly loves so afflicted leads him to decry “the delusion of youth” and finally rebuke that which he had previously surrendered to.
The sequences with Mephisto in the serene countryside are perhaps the only moments where Faust veers off its tonal course, as it becomes a briefly puerile tale of moralizing that calls to mind Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book (1920), for example. It is even almost comical to see the personification of evil as a bloated, smirking hooligan with wild gesticulations and a seductive charm wrapped in skin-tight blackness, working his deceptive wiles on an elderly aunt.
Even with this extended and somewhat less engaging sequence, Faust moves along at a riveting pace. Its ability to captivate, however, often has little to do with the surface story. Rather, Murnau presents an array of dazzling special effects, primarily via superimpositions, set design constructed from miniatures and models, and a cleverly realized sense of scale manipulated by deceiving camera positioning, wooden figures, actor placement, lighting, and smoke. The ornate production of the film is phenomenal, though in its effectively illustrative purpose it scarcely hides its artificiality, championing the beauty and brilliance of the cinematography over any practical sense of realism. Save for a few standout sequences, though—the thrilling and exquisitely detailed nighttime cloak ride above the simulation landscape, for one—there is less camera movement than in other recently competed Murnau work, particularly The Last Laugh. Instead, Murnau crafts single static shots that radiate in an Expressionistic mise-en-scene convergence of light and shadow, artificial depth and protruding foreground features, and dramatic character interaction amidst the paranormal. In his seminal 1947 text, “From Caligari to Hitler,” Kracauer writes that “technical ingenuity was lavished on angelic apparitions and devilish conjuring tricks,” later adding that Faust, “was not so much a cultural monument as a monumental display of artifices capitalizing on the prestige of national culture.” And for her part, the other preeminent silent German film scholar Lotte Eisner, in her work, “The Haunted Screen,” praises Murnau: “[N]o other director, not even Lang, ever succeeded in conjuring up the supernatural as masterfully as this.”
Written by Gerhart Hauptmann and Hans Kyser, with some uncredited rewriting by Thea von Harbou, the soon to be notorious wife of Fritz Lang, Faust was conceived of from the beginning as a film to be released in a global market. For starters, Lillian Gish was the first choice to play the part of Gretchen. While the newcomer Horn does a fine job, one can easily see where such a delicate, tragic performance would have suited the demur Hollywood star well, and it does in many ways resemble her role in Way Down East (1920), for instance, or later in The Wind (1928), where she again grieves under brutal distress. Likewise, John Barrymore was initially considered in the role of Faust, which would have again given the film some American appeal and a degree of overseas financial security. With this international distribution in mind, Murnau reshot a considerable portion of the film for various markets, diversifying the arrangement of certain shots, variations in score, composition, and the quality of effects. The most substantial bonus feature on the recently released Kino Lorber Restored Deluxe Edition Blu-ray of Faust is a documentary, The Language of Shadows: Faust, which details not only the craftsmanship of the picture’s special effects, but also compares the various takes of certain sequences.
As opposed to the casting of Gretchen and Faust, however, Emil Jannings was always the top choice, having already played the Mephisto role on stage. Widely recognized as a preeminent German purveyor of complex, grandiose performances, he is at his most demonstrably theatrical in Faust, though Eisner would contend he “temporarily renounces his over-acting and for once is out-acted by his role.” A larger than life figure who sometimes literally looms above all, overseeing and pulling the strings, delightfully observing that which he sets into motion, Mephisto goes from dastardly mischievous to hauntingly malicious. Appearing as the merry prankster at first, the audience soon forgets what is at stake as he gleefully temps Faust with, “One day! Give it a try! A trial day!” In many ways, Mephisto is energetic and deviously alive with the same mad spirit that infects the likes of Dr. Mabuse and Dr. Caligari, two other icons of malevolence in silent German cinema.
Otherwise, the cast and crew of Faust is a congregation of seasoned veterans and relative unknowns. Familiar faces and names include Hanna Ralph, who had appeared in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), and Frida Richard, who had more than 180 films to her credit by this point, having previously worked with Murnau and Lang. And look for future Hollywood director William Dieterle as Gretchen’s brother.
Films created with such pictorial precision benefit the most from Blu-ray technology and the restorative talents that precede it. Faust is no exception. The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation’s restoration of the original German version of the film is stunning, and the Kino Lorber release boasts an audio-visual panoply of supplements: a piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia, adapted from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement by Paul Hensel; an orchestral score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, compiled from historic photoplay music; screen test footage of Ernst Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production Marguerite and Faust; and, on a separate DVD, the alternate 1930 cut of Faust, with an original score of its own.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinmea, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.