Though I am still woefully inexperienced when it comes to silent cinema, I know what I like, and I LOVE Murnau. Faust is one of his most adventurous and expressionistic films, it is an adaptation of the famous Goethe play of the same name. The film’s prologue is a wager between God and the Devil, and they rest the fate of humanity on the soul of Faust, an old and noble alchemist.
The Devil’s timing is opportune, and he sends his disciple, Mephisto to tempt the old man as he is terrorized by his inability to battle death. As the plague surrounds Faust, claiming more and more people, he becomes disillusioned, as he finds both his faith in God and science hopeless. This is when Mephisto appears, and tempts Faust with the ability to battle the plague, and by extension, death.
This does not work quite so well, so Mephisto offers something else… youth. The arrangement is meant to last just a day, and once again, timing is key as time runs out as a young Faust has in his arms the most beautiful woman in the world. In the heat of passion, he agrees to trade his soul for eternal youth.
Time passes, and Faust finds himself uninspired and unsatisfied with life. Even though Mephisto offers him all the pleasures of earthly delights, nothing calls out to him… until he remembers home. Faust is once again filled with passion, demanding to be brought to the home of his youth. It is easter weekend, and almost immediately, he falls for the pure and beautiful Gretchen.
Using the power of the devil, he earns the affection and adoration of Gretchen… but again, things aren’t quite as sweet as they seem.
This film is a classic story of good and evil, and though one might not be familiar with Faust itself, the story is no doubt one you’d recognize. In no way does this undermine it’s power and influence, as Murnau’s strong sense of emotion creates something truly remarkable. The opening scenes evocation of both a world beyond our own, and then finally, a world haunted by the black plague are remarkable… the latter being, especially, an incredible manifestation of our understanding of death. From the lighting, the chiaroscuro scheme, to the madness of the crowd scenes, with people moving chaotically through the frame; often in striking diagonals.
The film’s second half demands some patience, the tone changes drastically, as does the narrative… but the pay off is worthwhile and in no way cheapened by it’s bittersweet epilogue.