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Following the success of The Last Laugh, German silent-film master F.W. Murnau was handed two prestige projects for UFA studios, both filmed in 1926 and both taken from literary titans: Tartuffe by Molière and Faust by Goethe. Though box office hits, both were at the time critically reviled as evidence of how cinema can only inevitably reduce the subtlety of great works of literature by trying to adapt them. Booby-trapped with myopic expectations of faithfulness from the beginning, the filming of Great Novels has always been a risky venture for all the wrong reasons—namely, the tendency to see the resulting film for what it should have been rather than for what it is. It is no surprise that contemporary critics saw in Tartuffe the coarsening of Molière’s wit but not the filmmaker’s rigorously formalist compositional storytelling, yet to them this was but a minor offense next to Murnau’s alleged sins with Faust: How dare he degrade the most famous work of Weimar Classicism’s key figure into a series of flights of fantasy?

Siegfried Kracauer, after Caligari but still before Hitler, called Faust a simplistic battle of good versus evil that thoroughly vulgarized the nuances of the author, yet there is nothing simplistic about the raging storm of sights and emotions that makes Murnau’s film such a staggering experience. Goethe’s text is sampled throughout, but for Murnau, a poetic visualist with a disdain for intertitles, the image comes first—the screen’s chiaroscuro is sculpted with shadows and light, infernal beasts roam freely and the fate of the world rests on a wager between Satan and the Archangel. The greatest of wonders lies in humanity’s freedom to choose between good and evil, aged alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekman) declares among the mortals, and since the cosmic bet hinges on the swaying of his soul, Satan makes things more interesting by spreading pestilence over the man’s hamlet. The unforgettable sight of gargantuan demonic wings engulfing the miniature burg with plague precipitates Faust’s spiritual decline, his inability to save the lives around him leading to despair and the magisterial crossroads rendezvous with Mephisto (Emil Jannings), the satanic trickster sent to show him the allure of decadence.

The words of their pact burn onto a blank scroll: Faust’s soul for “the power and glory of the world,” signed in blood. Rejected by the townspeople once the source of his miracles is revealed, Faust chooses pleasure and youth with Mephisto as his servant, the earth seeming to stretch before his eyes during a flight on an enchanted cloak. Here and everywhere, the pictures flow like supernal apparitions out of the characters’ subconscious, revved up by Murnau’s matchless illusionism; the tracking shots across the land during Faust’s magic carpet ride are awe-inspiring not as a special-effect template, but as an indelible visualization of the character’s burgeoning knowledge of the universe beyond the frame, expanding simultaneously with the awareness of his own potential for corruption. Films from the German Expressionism era, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to A Joyless Street and the Mabuse pictures, are famous for their fiercely stylized mise-en-scène, and to Murnau the medium’s very artificiality provided the keys to locating its truths. Rejecting “realism,” the director employs filmic elements (the camera’s angles and movement, rhythm, depth and width of composition) not to photograph the world but to re-envision it as a liquid canvas where the fantastic continuously infuses the mundane. It’s no coincidence that a book-length study of the countless stylistic wonders of Faust was later written by another (albeit considerably less baroque) believer in cinema’s theatricalization of reality, Eric Rohmer.

Faust and Metropolis are often huddled together as ultimate examples of the UFA aesthetic, though the timeless fantasia of Murnau’s vision is far less attuned to the Weimar epoch than Fritz Lang’s classic (unless, of course, one counts George Sadoul’s waspish comment on the head-shaking similarities here between the Duchess of Parma’s ball to a 1920s German music hall). Lang’s iron-clad architectural sense is also missing from Murnau’s structurally messier film; indeed, Faust could be easily seen as the filmmaker’s most uneven work, not only in format but also in tone and acting. Moods jar, Jannings bulldozes from Kabuki to Keystone in a heartbeat, the intensity is unbalanced—the unevenness is undeniable, but also rich, fascinating, and perhaps not entirely unintentional.

The passage most modern audiences seem to dislike is the courting sequence between Faust and Gretchen (Camilla Horn), the peasant waif whose simple purity captivates him after his period of dissolution; most people I have shown the movie to dismiss the young actors as completely inadequate, and just about crawl out for a cigarette during Mephisto’s broadly comic interlude with Gretchen’s randy aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert). The low, low comedy of these scenes—with Jannings’s W.C. Fields finding his Marie Dressler in Guilbert, the two matching leers—is enlivening exactly because it offers a contrasting mood to the rest of the film, reaching back to the clowning-commenting couples of Shakespeare and Mozart while showing that what actors can with their faces and bodies is scarcely less magic than a studio recreation of a medieval town. The casting also deserves a second look: Ekman plays Faust as both an old and a young man, and his gravitas under aged make-up are just as striking as his feminine beauty as a callow youth (the gay Murnau would not really feel free to eroticize the human body until Tabu), yet it’s with Horn that the filmmaker’s attention lies. Forever seen as a second-choice after Lillian Gish turned the role down, she has the fragility to match Ekman, and her physical movements, particularly toward the film’s final passages, are as achingly choreographed as Janet Gaynor’s in Sunrise.

Coming midway through the film, the sequence represents in musical terms an intermezzo allegro within the overall work, an idyll that is to be crushed. Branded a “harlot” after her romance with Faust, Gretchen wanders the icy streets with her dying baby; captured for accidentally killing the child, she cries for her lover, and her scream, its sound stunningly turned into an image with a superimposition of her face, travels the world till reaching Faust’s ears. What follows then is one of cinema’s great emotional crescendos, with the distraught hero racing to rescue his beloved from being burned at the stake. Mephisto returns him to old age as he reaches Gretchen on her way to the pyre, and, in one of the most heartbreaking moments in film, Faust offers her the soul he no longer owns (“Forgive me my sin”). The fire destroys and purifies and the camera tilts heavenwards to join their souls in eternity; “love” is the word that breaks the Devil’s pact. The cosmos aligned itself through emotion for Murnau—it’s not a substitute for literature, it’s pure cinema.

116 min
F.W. Murnau
Hans Kyser
Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, Frida Richard, Wilhelm Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert, Eric Barclay, Hanna Ralph, Werner Fuetterer