“All things in heaven and earth are wonderful! But the greatest wonder is man’s freedom to choose between good and evil.”
In medieval Germany, the demon Mephistopheles (Emil Jannings) bets an archangel (Weiner Fuetterer) that he can corrupt the soul of a well-meaning alchemist (Goesta Ekmann). After experiencing a trial day of omnipotence and youth, Faust (Ekmann) accepts Jannings’ pact in order to romance the “most beautiful woman in the world” (Hanna Ralph); when he eventually falls in love with a chaste young maiden (Camilla Horn), however, Mephistopheles plots their downfall.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- F.W. Murnau Films
- Pact with the Devil
- Silent Film
Loosely based upon the first part of Goethe’s play of the same name, F.W. Murnau’s Faust remains one of his most visually evocative films, with consistently atmospheric cinematography by DP Carl Hoffman, effectively stylized sets, and fine special effects. From its stunning opening sequences — wherein an archangel and Mephistopheles use Faust as a pawn in a wager against one another, and Mephistopheles unleashes a plague upon Faust’s village — we are immediately invested in Faust’s sticky existential dilemma. Dr. Faust (nicely played in both old age and youth by Goesta Ekmann) initially accepts Mephistopheles’ proposal in desperate hopes of finding a way to heal his plague-ridden neighbors — but the fearful townsfolk immediately discern that Faust is in league with the devil, and want nothing to do with his ill-gotten cures. From thence, Faust’s foolhardy decision to accept Mephistopheles’ offer of further omnipotence and youth is much less easy to swallow; at this point, we understand that, despite his originally noble intentions, Faust has squarely dug his own grave.
The film’s middle scenes — as Faust explores a life of hedonism, then becomes smitten by a fair maiden, while Mephistopheles himself flirts with the maiden’s mother (Frida Richard) — are often noted as its least compelling, perhaps in part because the imagery is no longer quite so consistently stunning; by the film’s final tragic act, however, the momentum and visual interest have picked up once again. Interestingly, it’s Mephistopheles himself (played with impish glee by Jannings) who emerges as the film’s most memorable character. We’re reminded time and again that Faust’s entire journey is predicated upon Mephistopheles’ whims: once Mephistopheles decides that Faust has made a mistake in falling for Gretchen (Horn), he quickly sets the wheels in motion to “help” Faust see the error of his ways. By the end of Faust’s bitterly tragic saga, we come to believe that any type of consort with the devil is truly a compromised bargain: there is no room for goodness or humility once one has crossed over to the Other Side.
Note: Interestingly, in his “Greatest Films” review, Roger Ebert points out that Faust is ranked by IMDb users as one of the top horror films of all time (even placing it above Murnau’s more widely recognized, Dracula-themed Nosferatu); however, I’m not quite sure I would label it within that genre myself, as it’s less a horror film than a morality/folk tale.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Carl Hoffman’s stunning cinematography
- Excellent early special effects
- Countless memorable images
- Fine expressionistic sets
Yes, as an acknowledged silent classic by a master filmmaker. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.