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