In 1926 F.W. Murnau, the silent-era master of macabre, released what would be his final German film before moving on to the Western market and stepping into the era of the “talkie”. Faust, seems an apt farewell, not only to Murnau’s own golden years, but to the entire movement of silent cinema.
Based on the classic tale by Marlowe, Faust tells the story of an elderly professor who is manipulated by the Devil to renounce God, and science, in favour of Satan’s own aid. Unbeknownst to Faust, he is part of a wager for the sake of all humanity: if Mephisto can truly corrupt Faust’s soul, the angels in heaven will allow his dominance over Earth.
Combining staunch Gothic storytelling with Murnau’s sometimes nightmarish, sometimes dreamlike expressionism, is a formula for perfection. Faust is stunning, a genuinely impressive feature of such weight and ingenuity that it rarely slips into the narrative and technical pitfalls of its contemporaries. When we watch silent films now, there is always an element of recalibration, a second to reset our heads to a different form of storytelling, but Murnau’s vision is as fresh as it ever was, impressively so.
The continuity of the tone, the aesthetic, and the visual make this the perfect rendition of the classic story. Every shot is concrete in terms of technical accuracy and creative flare, Murnau’s composition feels fresh, considerate, every frame is carefully calculated, every image considered for what it may and may not show. The expressionist mind trap of the silent-era town is here utilised in such a gorgeous and frankly grand way that the film has a beautiful range of depths. Your eye strolls through the foreground and is ultimately meandered through an asymmetric architectural gobbledygook. Here every rooftop and pathway collide to squash characters into some kind of physical representation of Faust’s erratic life.
Special mention must be reserved for the production design of Faust, particularly Emil Jannings’ dastardly turn as Mephisto. One particular scene sees Jannings standing with his giant wings wrapped around a small town as the terrified townsfolk run to and fro away from the plague. The scene is gorgeous and actually served as the inspiration for Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain sequence. The town miniatures, especially the ones seen when Faust and Mephisto fly across the world, are shot so seamlessly that it becomes fairly difficult to maintain grasp on what’s real and what’s not. Skilful layering of images grants everything a weightiness rare in the digital age.
The 1080p clean-up is obviously the best way to view this masterpiece, maintaining as much sharpness and detail as possible in the film’s original format. On the new DVD/Blu-ray release there are a few different versions of the film: alternative scenes, a choice to watch the film with either harp or orchestral scoring, and a couple of great wee features. The harp scoring works better in the second half of the film, particularly the scenes between Faust and the girl, but to really get the Gothic grandiose of the more intense sequences, the orchestra does just fine.
1927 saws the mainstream embrace of the spoken word film and Murnau himself died just five years after the release of Faust at the age of 42, making this film oddly loaded with cultural and cinematic significance. Faust stands as a proud, ingenuous, and often breath-taking marker of a bygone era. Trully great cinema.
Dir: F.W. Murnau
Stars: Gosta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, Frida Richard