Although F.W. Murnau's FAUST is not as well known as his NOSFERATU (1922), THE LAST LAUGH (1924), and SUNRISE (1927), it's certainly in the same league as those silent classics, displaying the same astonishing use of stylized imagery and Murnau's mastery of cinematic technique.
In an attempt to gain control of the Earth, Mephisto the Devil (Emil Jannings) wagers an angel (Werner Fuetterer) that he can destroy the soul of a kind, elderly professor named Faust (Gosta Ekman). Mephisto brings a devastating plague to the town where Faust lives and kills half of its
inhabitants. Faust's attempts to find a cure are unsuccessful and he loses his faith in God and science when his prayers go unanswered. He invokes the aid of Satan after finding a book which instructs him to summon the lord of darkness, and Mephisto agrees to help him if he signs a pact for one
day. Faust does so, but when the townsfolk realize that he's in league with the Devil, they stone him. He tries to kill himself, but Mephisto stops him and offers to give Faust eternal youth, which he accepts. They fly over the city on Mephisto's cloak and go to Italy, where Mephisto seduces a
beautiful duchess on her wedding day and delivers her to Faust. Intoxicated with lust, Faust agrees to extend the one-day pact and let it stand for eternity.
Faust returns to his hometown and falls for an innocent, young, religious girl named Gretchen (Camilla Horn), whom Mephisto puts under a spell to make her fall in love with Faust. Faust sneaks into Gretchen's room and makes love to her, but the devious Mephisto informs her brother Valentin
(Wilhelm Dieterle), who has a sword fight with Faust. Mephisto kills Valentin during the duel, making it appear that Faust did it, and then warns Faust to flee. Gretchen leaves home in shame and later gives birth to a baby, which dies. She's charged with being a child killer and is sentenced to be
burned at the stake. When Faust learns of this, he curses Mephisto and says that he wishes he had never asked to be young. Mephisto complies and makes him old again. Faust throws himself on the burning pyre, kisses Gretchen, and the two die together. Mephisto goes back to Heaven and tries to claim
his wager, but the angel tells him that the pact has been broken by the Eternal Word: "Love."
FAUST is an extremely stylish horror fantasy in the best tradition of German silent cinema, featuring brilliant photography, magnificent art direction, and magical special effects which still have the power to amaze. The opening sequence is a mesmerizing example of Murnau's supreme visual
artistry, showing the demonic Horsemen of the Apocalypse (War, Plague, Famine) riding through the sky, Mephisto confronting the angel in Heaven, and the gargantuan-sized Mephisto hovering over the city and casting a giant shadow over it as he spreads his wings. Every shot of Carl Hoffman's
chiaroscuro photography seems to be filled with smoke and fog, creating a breathtaking shadow play of light and shade, while the imaginative sets, with their slanted roofs and twisted steps, were all built in forced perspective (a Murnau trademark) to maximize each specific camera angle. The
special effects are also quite impressive (e.g., Faust surrounded by rising rings of fire when he invokes Mephisto; words made of smoke magically appearing on the pact; a reflection of Faust's youthful face in the suicide elixir he's about to drink from as an old man), and the use of miniatures is
superb, particularly in the astounding scene where Faust rides on Mephisto's cloak and they fly across the dragon-filled sky and look down on the buildings and snow-covered mountains below.
The story tends to drag during the middle section when Faust romances Gretchen, but then recovers for the stunningly emotional climax where Gretchen freezes in the snow with her baby (made to look like the Madonna and her child), Faust sacrifices himself, and the powerful final image when the
Eternal Word "LIEBE" (LOVE) appears in a cloud. The theme of redemption through love is one that would also be the subject of Murnau's masterpiece SUNRISE, which was his very next film and was made in Hollywood. Actor Wilhelm Dieterle, who played Valentin, also came to America and became a famous
director under the name William, making an excellent version of the Faust tale himself, 1941's THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, which shows some of Murnau's influence. (Adult situations, violence.)
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