The story of Faust is fairly well known and F.W. Murnau’s 1926 version is, as far as I know, the earliest attempt to bring it to the screen. It stars Gosta Ekman as Faust, Emil Jannings as Mephisto, and Camilla Horn as Gretchen. In the tale Mephisto and an angel make a wager over the concept of free will as it applies to humanity. If Mephisto can destroy what is good in Faust, an aged alchemist, then the world will be his. Jannings is, as usual, wonderful in the role. He brilliantly mixes deviousness and menace. His characterization manages to be iconic (see the photo above, of him towering over the city, sending a plague to test Faust’s faith) and conniving. I’ve always wondered why someone would ever make a literal deal with the devil in a movie/song/story because, let’s face it, it never works out well. In the case of Jannings, however, it seems reasonable that even Faust would be taken in by his scheming.
Ekman is a revelation as Faust. I have never seen him in anything else, but apparently he is considered one of the greatest actors that Sweden has ever produced and this reputation seems deserved. He is as completely believable as an old man as he is young (in fact, the first time I saw the movie I assumed it was two different actors). The portrayal is filled with inner turmoil, the dichotomous relationships between doubt and certainty and right and wrong.
Faust’s deal with the devil destroys everything he loves and his relationship with all those around him. Near the end of the film he is all alone, his only companion being Mephisto. He originally entered the pact to save his hometown from the plague and when they realized what he had done they rejected him. He asks to be returned to a younger state, embracing the ideal of youth. It is in the guise of a young man that he falls in love with an innocent girl and their relationship leads to her fall from grace and descent into madness. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but is it not all sunshine and flowers (although I would argue that it is a happy ending).
This was Murnau’s last German film. One of the greatest directors in film history, he moved to Hollywood just after finishing Faust. He enjoyed success in the United States, but became disenchanted after a few years and spent much of his time in Tahiti. Unfortunately he would only make four more movies in his lifetime, his final one being shot on location in Tahiti. Jannings would also go to Hollywood soon after, but he returned to Germany after the advent of sound (apparently his accent was too thick to be understood by English-speaking audiences). He made propaganda films for the Third Reich and this ended his career after the Second World War. Jannings had won the first Best Actor Oscar (and was the first person to ever win an Oscar) and apparently he carried his statuette around just after the war, showing it to allied soldiers in an attempt to prove that he was pro-American.
To me, this movie marks the end of the expressionist era in German film (Metropolis would follow just one year later, ushering in a new realism and science fiction). Although elements of the movement still survived, it peaked in the 1920s and Faust is, in my mind, the last great expressionist movie. Light and dark, good and evil, compete with one another for screen time in Murnau’s masterpiece and in the end we are lucky enough to watch the struggle forever.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1926 worth seeing):
Don Juan, starring John Barrymore (who is worth watching in almost anything), was the first full-length feature film to have a recorded, synchronized score and sound effects. There was not recorded dialogue, however. Douglas Fairbanks starred, wrote, directed, and produced The Black Pirate and he paid for the extraordinarily expensive Technicolor process on the film. It is a delight to watch and really interesting to see such an old film in color. Son of the Sheik was the last screen appearance of Rudolph Valentino, the original matinee idol and co-stars Vilma Banky, one of my wife’s favorites.
Did you know? (1926 Trivial knowledge)
“If thou canst destroy what is divine in Faust, the earth is thine.” The Angel to the Devil.
Which Version did I watch?
The Kino version from the F.W. Murnau box set
This entry is more about Lon Chaney Sr. than about the film, although Phantom is a genuine classic. It is the melodramatic story of a disfigured man named Erik, who lives in the old torture chambers far below the Paris Opera House and is occasionally seen by actors and stagehands. He takes a fancy to an understudy, Christine Daae, and uses the threat of violence to get her into the performance. Once he has fulfilled her dream of appearing on the stage, she keeps her promise to come and live with him (honestly, I can’t tell if she’s drugged or fulfilling her promise or what, but for some reason she moves to the sewers with him), although she has never seen his face. In the end, she must be rescued by her true, mustachioed, love (and, of course, he has to win because his mustache is so glorious).
The movie itself has beautiful set pieces, costumes, and some good performances. The massive sets were intended to recreate the Paris Opera House perfectly (allegedly some of the sets still stand on the studio lot and won’t be taken down because the ghost of Lon Chaney hurts studio employees who try to take it down)
The film includes a mesmerizing Technicolor sequence that takes place during a costume ball (contrary to popular belief, Technicolor was available during the silent era, but was VERY expensive, hence only a portion of the movie was filmed in color. Douglas Fairbanks filmed all of The Black Pirate in Technicolor). This scene allows Chaney, dressed in a red costume and a skull mask, to interact with other denizens of the Opera House. He intimidates and frightens them and follows Christine and her lover to the roof. While they discuss their love for one another and their fear of the Phantom, he sits above them on a statue, his red cloak whipping in the wind, his twisted face pained by her rejection.
Mary Philbin is a little over-the-top but charming as Christine and the supporting players, by and large, are good. But Chaney is the center piece. Famously known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” (this nickname was the inspiration for the genius Dragunfyst and Phriskey line “I’m the man of a million rhymes/the Lon Chaney of raps”), he did all his own makeup and his creation for Phantom is one of the most iconic in screen history and the makeup job for which he is best known. The scene where his face is first revealed is a ballet of tension and suspense. While Erik is playing the organ, Christine walks up behind him. She wants to remove his mask, she reconsiders, and then she decides to do so. She pulls the mask from his face while both of them are facing the camera, revealing his hideous visage to the audience before she glimpses it. When he turns she is mortified. Audiences allegedly screamed out loud when Chaney’s phantom was first revealed.
Chaney had grown up the child of two deaf/mute parents. This lifetime of communicating without sound made him particularly suited to the silent film era and there was no star bigger in the second half of the 1920s. His performances are emotional and subtle in a time when most actors were merely emotional. Lon Chaney, Sr. is a jewel of early film acting and you should see at least one of his movies. I loved him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he is mesmerizing in Phantom.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1925 that are worth seeing):
If this was a blog simply about the greatest film of a particular year, it would be almost impossible to not select Battleship Potemkin. The impact of Eisenstein’s masterpiece on film cannot be overstated. His “Odessa Steps” sequence is so recognizable that everyone who reads this blog has seen something that imitates it. Eisenstein’s Strike was also released in the U.S. that same year. Like Battleship some of the editing tricks will seem conventional to modern eyes, but they were completely revolutionary for their time. If you enjoyed the Douglas Fairbanks film I recommended for 1924, you will also love Don Q, Son of Zorro, a sequel to his highly successful turn as Zorro a few years earlier. Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman rather unrealistically casts Lloyd as a college freshman, but it is a fun romp. The Gold Rush was Charlie Chaplin’s favorite Charlie Chaplin film, where he mined comedy from a story inspired partly by the Donner Party tragedy.
Did you know? (1925 Trivial Knowledge):
“Feast your eyes – glut your soul on my accursed ugliness.” Erik, the Phantom, to Christine Daae.
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Milestone edition, which features both the original and the re-edited 1930 re-release. I watched the 1930 version.