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Only four years after bringing Dracula to the big screen for the first time ever in the silent classic Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau directed what would be his biggest production and last movie in his native Germany.
Murnau’s love of painting is in evidence in Faust. The film resembles more a series of dream like states rather than a cohesive narrative. Nothing short of a radiant masterpiece of German Expressionism, Murnau skillfully depicts the supernatural in this silent film loosely adapted from Goethe’s classic work and German folklore.
The movie opens with three of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and segues into the film’s most foreboding and recognizable scene of Satan spreading his enormous black wings over a medieval village. The shadows of this image are turned chiaroscuro (a repetitive motif) in the movie upon the arrival of an Angel of God engulfed in blinding light and holding a sword.
A wager is made for the soul of the old alchemist/scholar Faust. If the Devil can corrupt him then he will be given the earth as his domain.
Old Faust is disheartened at the death toll the plague has taken on his village. His efforts to save lives are hopeless as the town descends further into pestilence, debauchery and death. In his despair Faust goes into a secluded wood one night and summons the Devil. Back home Mephisto appears to him and tempts him into signing away his soul in exchange for earthly power and glory. Faust is horrified and rebukes him, but the Devil isn’t done tempting him. He promises Faust that for one day he will be given the power to heal the sick and the hungry if he just signs the contract and at the end of the day he will be free. The contract nullified.
But the Devil of course is a clever and dishonest trickster. When the opportunity soon arises for Faust to help a plague victim he finds himself unable to touch the girl as there is a cross upon her chest. The villagers accuse (and rightly so) Faust of being in league with the Devil and chase him away.
As a despondent Faust attempts suicide he sees his youthful reflection in the poisoned cup. Another of Mephisto’s tricks to seduce Faust. This time with the promise of youth Faust accepts. Mephisto then presents him with a vision of a semi-nude beauty. The now young and horny Faust lusts for her and demands that Mephisto take him to her. The Devil is only too happy to comply. Faust steps on Mephisto’s cape and they fly over towns and cities. Along the way Mephisto explains that the woman in question is the Duchess of Parma, the most beautiful woman in Italy and today is her wedding day.
Once they arrive at the wedding party, things begin to quicken and there is now no doubt in my mind that Rohypnol and GHB were invented by the Devil! With the “seduction”/rape of the Duchess and the murder of her groom Faust is now clearly ensnared in the Devil’s claws.
But after Faust has had his fill of pleasure he finds he is still not happy nor satisfied until his eyes alight upon the lovely Gretchen, a virtuous young maiden. Mephisto expains that such an innocent girl is not for him, but Faust insists he wants her. Mephisto obliges his “master” to the destruction of all.
This entrapment will cost Gretchen not only her innocence and reputation but also the lives of her mother and brother. A year later a disgraced and unwed mother (the baby is Faust’s), Gretchen is an outcast ostracized by the towns people. Her child is starving and she goes from door to door in bitter winter begging for food for her child. The town shows its compassion by slamming doors in her face. The child dies and the villagers accuse Gretchen of infanticide. They sentence her to burn at the stake.
As Gretchen screams for Faust her plea crosses time and space reaching him. Faust now realizes that Mephisto has betrayed and deceived him. Gretchen has suffered horribly. Again, the entire film is surreal in its dream like sequences. Don’t expect entirely coherent story telling here.
By the time Faust reaches Gretchen to try and save her, Mephisto makes sure to return Faust to his natural state as an old man. Despite the dramatic physical change, Gretchen recognizes him. Faust climbs the pyre and dies with her. But the Devil doesn’t get the final laugh. The Angel of God informs him that he in fact has lost and the contract with Faust is void. Faust’s true love for Gretchen and his genuine remorse have washed away his sins and crimes. The Angel explains that Love is more powerful than death or sin.
The cast was meant to be international and to some extent it is. Murnau had originally cast Lillian Gish in the role of Gretchen but the American star insisted on her personal camera man to shoot the entire film. Murnau was forced to cast a relatively unknown German actress, Camilla Horn who executes the role superbly. Swedish actor Gosta Ekman was cast as Faust and German actor Emil Jannings as Mephisto is nothing short of mesmerizing. His range of facial expressions runs the gamut from truly diabolical and frightening to clownish and laughable in his scene with Aunt Martha. This is no easy task when you consider this is a silent movie and actors had to rely on the strength of their body language and facial expression to carry the movie.
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