Starring: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, William Dieterle
Though a number of early directors experimented with the Faust legend, such as Edwin Porter’s short in 1909 and other attempts in the ‘20s, German director Friedrich Willhelm (F.W.) Murnau’s 1926 version of the film is the oldest surviving direct feature length adaptation. His Faust remains one of the finest silent films and a shining example of the heights of German expressionism. Alongside Fritz Lang, Murnau (1888 - 1931) is the most important figure of German expressionist cinema and remains famous today for his early horror masterpiece, Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922). His most popular film, Nosferatu was an unofficial, unsanctioned adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and was almost lost due to copyright issues with Stoker’s estate. Aside from a literary source, Nosferatu shares a number of themes with Faust, such as the struggle between good and evil, morality and desire, and fantastical, almost dream-like depictions of death and plague.
Though many of them are forgotten or ignored, Murnau is also responsible for a number of other influential silent films. After serving in WWI, he began a film company with famed horror and German expressionist actor Conrad Veidt and produced a number of well-regarded silent films during the ‘20s in Weimar Germany. Some of these films influenced the upcoming horror boom of America cinema, particularly Der Janus Kopf (1920), a take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Veidt and a young Bela Lugosi. He directed the now-lost film Satanas (1920) aka Satan, a three-part historical drama and morality tale about a number of figures facing temptation: an Egyptian pharaoh, an Italian prince (inspired by the Borgia family), and a law student during the Russian revolution. Conrad Veidt, who appears in a number of roles, makes a brief appearance as Satan during the final segment.
Also of note are The Haunted Castle (1921), the surreal Phantom (1922), and Tartuffe (1926). The latter is an adaptation of Moliere's famous French Revolution-era play and features cinematography from the great Karl Freund, who regularly collaborated with Murnau and Fritz Lang and would go on to work with Universal in America, where he did cinematography on Dracula and directed The Mummy. Murnau also directed the melodrama The Last Laugh (1924) with Emil Jannings, who would go on to star in Faust, Murnau's final German film. The Last Laugh is important for its innovative camera work.
In 1926, Murnau accepted a job with Fox Studio, who promised him even bigger budgets and more creative freedom than he experienced at UFA Studios in Weimar Germany, and he made three films with Fox before dying in a car crash in Santa Barbara in 1931. The first, Sunrise (1927), is considered one of the greatest films ever made and received a number of awards at the first ever Academy Awards in 1929. He also directed the unsuccessful silent-sound cross over films, Four Devils (1928), a circus melodrama, and a romantic drama, City Girl (1930).
Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage was the third of Murnau’s films produced by UFA, the largest studio in Weimar Germany, who gave the director complete creative control and a budget of two million marks, twice what he had to work with for Tartuffe. Until Lang’s Metropolis the following year, it was UFA’s longest and most expensive production to date, with a six month shoot time. Swedish actor Gösta Ekman stars as Faust, appearing both as young and old version of the character with some incredible make up. German silent star and regular Murnau collaborator Emil Jannings costarred as Mephisto in a film-stealing role. It was particularly important for UFA that Jannings be cast in the film, as he was the biggest star in Germany at the time. The relatively unknown Camilla Horn appeared as Gretchen/Marguerite, in a role originally written for Lillian Gish. The famous American actress pulled out at the last moment because she wanted her personal cinematographer to shoot the film. German actor and director William Dieterle, who would soon emigrate to the U.S. with most of the German film community, appeared as Gretchen’s brother. He would go on to direct another important Faustian film, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).
Mephisto further tempts him with youth and wealth, and promises him the Duchess of Parma, who is about to be married. Mephisto kills her groom and Faust is entranced by her, permanently sealing the diabolical pact. Faust quickly abandons the Duchess for an innocent young girl, Gretchen. Though she rejects his advances, Mephisto tricks her with a piece of enchanted jewelry. His liaison with Gretchen results in tragedy and the deaths of her mother and brother, as well as Gretchen’s deflowering and pregnancy. In a delirium, she kills her child and is sentenced to burn to death. Faust, finally repenting, rejects Mephisto’s gifts and throws himself on the fire, which results in his ultimate salvation.
Though audiences may have been ambivalent about Murnau’s interpretation of Faust, the film went on to influence future cinematography and special effects techniques. Murnau filmed with two cameras and shot from multiple angles, often using many takes for each scene. As a result, there are a number of versions of the film that survive in different prints around the world. The original release was just 86 minutes, but the somewhat recently restored version by Kino International, released it on a two-disc, special edition DVD, is stretched to 116 minutes and contains a number of reconstructed scenes that were previously thought to be lost.
Aside from the ground breaking camera work, Faust was influential for its powerful visuals and dynamic opening and concluding scenes, as well as the intensely claustrophobic tone. Walter Röhrig, set designer on the hugely influential Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, created much of the film’s impressive look. Though some of the second act romantic drama between Faust, the Duchess, and Gretchen can seem slow or overly melodramatic by today’s cinema standards, the opening includes some of the most memorable visuals of German expressionism. Cinematographer Carl Hoffman captured almost surreal visions of the plague ravaged town with hooded figures and corpses dumped in pits, as well as a winged Satan overlooking the village accompanied by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Faust’s ritualized book burning and invocation of Satan. Elements of the supernatural are dream-like and almost represent a series of tableaux rather than a cohesive narrative. Though this is not strictly a horror film and more closely follows the structure of a morality tale, there are undeniable elements of horror, the surreal, and the fantastic. The character of Faust pales in comparison to Janning’s Mephisto, who reigns over the film as its unlikely protagonist. In addition, the dismal, almost nihilistic ending, where both Faust and Gretchen burn alive, gives little consolation despite the fact that it is technically a happy ending.
Faust comes highly recommended and is a must-see classic of German expressionism, often ignored alongside more famous films of the period. The Kino restored 2-disc edition comes highly recommended, though you can also watch it online for free.