The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Faust (1926/Germany/dir. F.W. Murnau) appeared at #91 on my original list.
What it is • Faust (Gosta Ekman), an aged alchemist, hovers over his books and contraptions in a narrowed, clustered abbey. When a plague spreads through his village - depicted as a billowing black mist rolling through the steeples and gabled rooftops like a diseased avalanche - the doctor despairs of a cure and sells his soul to the devil for the good of mankind. Meeting Mephistophales (Emil Jannings) at the proverbial crossroads, he'll eventually sign a contract in blood. Sure enough, his healing powers increase - but so does his horror of crucifixes, leading the ungrateful villagers to discover his secret and stone him out of town. From there he embarks on a whirlwind journey, regaining his youth and soaring on a magic cloak to foreign lands where he will seduce princesses, brood atop volcanoes, and eventually depart for his beloved home for a romantic springtime interlude (chasing his beloved Gretchen - Camilla Horn - in a dewy glen) which will predictably be all too brief. Tragedy, misunderstanding, and betrayal ensue. Did the alchemist seal his doom with his crimson signature, or will love conquer all in the flames of martyrdom? Faust, F.W. Murnau's last film in Germany, is an Expressionist masterpiece - all iconic, exaggerated figures and fog shot through with beams of light and craggy, crooked sets - but it finds time to savor the human moment as well as go for the grand effects.
Why I like it •
I first saw Faust during a screening without any musical accompaniment. The show was a double feature with The Last Laugh (which I had already seen) and I hesitated before buying the ticket, wondering if a silent film screened without a score would be too alienating. It turned out to be just the opposite: one of my most immersive cinematic experiences. Without the distraction of a tinkering organ or bellowing orchestra the bold images blasted me from my seat. I also savored Murnau's ability to shift tone and style without blinking an eye...after the expected gothic gloom of the opening, we end up cavorting with the comely Gretchen and Janning's mugging Mephistophales in a light-hearted romp. This recalls Murnau's similar tonal shift in Sunrise (who could predict, opening with a murderous melodrama set in the countryside, that we'd be laughing at a drunken pig in a modern nightclub halfway through). The film is also a technical tour-de-force, with imaginative innovations jostling one another out of the way impatiently: superimpositions, exaggerated angles, eyes gleaming out of the darkness, characters looming gigantic over vast cityscapes...there isn't a boring image from start to finish. Jannings also offers up a memorably garish Mephistopheles, assisted by costume changes ranging from a gargoyle-like devil in the sky to a stringy-haired cackling hermit to an absurd swashbuckler part-Dracula, part-samurai (his outfit, poses, and especially his exaggerated grimaces remind me of a Japanese woodcut). Faust may be my favorite German Expressionist film because it's weighty without being heavy, and stylized without being lifeless. While I admire and respect the best of Expressionism, not all of it appears as viscerally dynamic or enthusiastically lively to me as Murnau's work, and he remains one of my favorite early auteurs.
How you can see it • Faust is available via streaming and DVD from Netflix. It is also on YouTube in its entirety.
What do you think? • What is your favorite Expressionist film? Your favorite Murnau? Have you seen other versions of Faust, and are there any you prefer? Is Jannings' often comically over-the-top performance too much or the perfect counterpoint to the film's early and late doom and gloom? Do you notice any elements William Dieterle, who plays Gretchen's brother, borrowed for his own Americanized Faust tale, The Devil and Daniel Webster which he directed in 1941? Some have criticized the middle sections - do they detract from the overall picture or do you agree with me that it provides a pleasing offset to the tragedy and melodrama elsewhere? Do you find you prefer silent films with a musical accompaniment or truly silent? Have you watched any sound films without the soundtrack - and what was the experience like?
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