F.W. Murnau’s interpretation of the classic moral fable cops out at the end but remains a fascinating study of idealism gone wrong.
For some reason or another, F.W. Murnau made an international version of his classic film Faust, using other takes and less complete special effects, and over the years this became the standard edition. Quite why he felt the need to knock out an inferior copy for the global market when he was so meticulous about the German cut is something we may never know, and you can only imagine that the circulation of the inferior version would’ve had him spinning in his grave. Thankfully, the preferred cut is now the most widely available version but for years, people were seeing a substandard copy of the film without even realising it.
Faust, of course, was quite a popular subject matter for German filmmakers in the silent era – and indeed for writers before that. Those people who are aghast at remake culture would be appalled to see just how often this story was filmed during the silent era. This version is the most epic of them all, taking from the various versions of the legend by Goethe, Gounod and Marlowe to create an extravagant morality tale that is full of humour and horror.
The film opens with the four horsemen of the apocalypse (a somewhat clumsy special effect even by the standards of the time, but one that is nevertheless surprisingly creepy) being admonished by an angel, who then demands that they leave the realm of men. Mephisto disagrees and suggests that men are inherently corrupt, and before long, the pair have made a wager – if Faust, a god-fearing old man according to the angel but a greedy alchemist in Mephisto’s eyes – can be made to reject God, then the forces of evil can take over the world.
Before long, Mephisto has spread the plague across the land (a genuinely impressive moment that still looks great even now, the demonic figure towering over the village and unleashing a cloud of pestilence from his cloak) and Faust, desperate to save the people and frustrated by his inability to do so, finally reaches the point of giving up… until he finds a book that gives him instructions for summoning the devil. Up pops Mephisto, and at first, Faust seems to be willing to make a deal for the best of reasons – in order to save the people from the spread of the plague, he signs up for a one-day’ tester deal’, as it were. But once he has a taste of power, he becomes more selfish. When he is offered his youth back, he agrees to sell his soul, and is soon a young man again, pursuing a pious young virgin. But Mephisto knows that all deals come at a price, and things start to go very wrong for Faust.
While the story of Faust is well known in general terms, this version expands it into unexpected areas. This isn’t simply a tale of Biblical good and evil – it’s far more subtle than that in its interpretation of the corrupting influence of power. Faust is not necessarily a bad man here, just a weak one – a person who starts off doing the right thing (or perhaps the wrong thing for the right reasons) and then is seduced by the chance to relive his life again. That he royally screws up other peoples’ lives in the process is probably not his intention, but then as they say of the road to Hell, it’s paved with good intentions that have had unforeseen circumstances.
Similarly, Mephisto is nicely nuanced. Often, he cautions Faust against actions that are foolhardy, though, of course, he knows that he will be ignored – it’s not so much that Satan is corrupting men in this story, as that they corrupt themselves. All he needs to do is sit back and watch. We could almost see Mephisto as someone who understands God’s creation better than God himself does and knows that he has no need to manipulate or trick those who he deals with – he simply has to appeal to their greed and selfish desires.
Murnau’s film still looks impressive in scope and style – this is ambitious filmmaking, even today. Naturally, many of the innovations no longer seem that innovative, but the mere fact that this still feels very modern shows how ahead of its time this was. Even the special effects, which are – let’s be honest – terrible, are oddly effective. Sometimes, if something looks too realistic, it loses something, and these effects – especially in the early scenes – are so odd, so crude that they take on a certain eeriness.
Of course, much of the acting is wildly exaggerated by modern standards, the silent movie requirements for pantomiming leading to some wild mugging. But Gosta Ekman as Faust is impressively restrained for the most part, and Emil Jennings as Mephisto is enjoyably comical, and charismatic, while still being unquestionably sinister.
The film’s ending will be a bone of contention for some viewers I suspect – it is for me, certainly. It’s a very religious ending and one that you suspect the hedonistic Murnau didn’t believe for a moment but was forced to include as a ‘square-up’ for both audiences and censors – evil cannot be allowed to triumph. While I can accept that Faust would make a last-minute attempt at redemption, the way that Mephisto loses his bet (and if you think that’s a spoiler, you probably haven’t seen many movies) is a bit lame, to be honest. Even at the time, this must’ve felt like a bit of a cop-out.
Issues about the ending aside though, Faust is remarkable stuff, and one of the iconic movies of the silent era. If you love classic cinema, you need to see this.
Help support The Reprobate: