faust | f.w. murnau | gerhart hauptmann | hans kyser | gosta ekman | emil jannings | camilla horn | drama | fantasy | based on | novel | johann wolfgang von goethe | germany | german expressionism | frida richard | william dieterle | yvette guilbert | religion | mythology
Film: Faust (Eine deutsche Volkssage)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Writers: Gerhart Hauptmann and Hans Kyser
Starring: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings and Camilla Horn
This was a movie that I decided to watch as it is the next film on the Letterboxd Top 250 Horror Movies List that I hadn’t seen. When I settled in to watch this, I realized that it was directed by F.W. Murnau, who did one of my favorite silent films in Nosferatu. I was curious to see what he’d do with this classic tale.
Synopsis: the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) wagers with God that he can corrupt a mortal man’s soul.
Now this synopsis is correct, while also misleading. Mephisto talks with an Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) about making this bet. The demon then decides to focus on Faust (Gösta Ekman). Mephisto has opened the gates of hell to which has unleashed war, plague and famine on humanity. We get to see this through three riders on unearthly beasts.
Faust is a man of God. He wants to help those around him who are dying of plague. When he cannot, this frustrates him. He starts to burn the books that he owns when he comes upon one directing him to a crossroads. If he goes there and calls upon Satan, he will get the help that he needs. The two then meet. A bargain is struck to give Faust one day trial to try the powers. He must then decide to keep them are not.
Our lead then goes about healing the sick. That is until one of them is wearing a cross. He cannot look upon it, causing the townspeople to turn and stone him. Faust returns to his home to hide and Mephisto gives him another deal. He will make him young, allow him to live out whatever fantasies he wants and Satan will be at his command. Mephisto agrees. This leads him to the wedding of the Duke of Parma (Eric Barclay) to the Duchess (Hanna Ralph). It also takes him to Gretchen (Camilla Horn) who lives a life of misfortune meeting this young, handsome Faust.
That is where I’ll leave my recap and introduction to the characters. Where I want to start is that I’ve not read this source material, but I’m familiar with it. It is a classic story when people are talking about striking up a deal with the devil. Now I don’t know if the tale we get here is the full story or things were added to make this movie, but how things play out is quite interesting.
Where I want to go then would be this bet made between God, through the Archangel, with Mephisto. This seems odd to me since making a bet like this should go against religion. This does seem more in line with the Old Testament version of God though. He could be vengeful and even a bit hubris about things. It also seems to me that the deck is stacked in their favor. We are also getting the idea that good triumphs over evil.
From there, I want to talk about Faust and the deal he makes. I can’t blame him for turning his back on God and science when he cannot help the people around him. He takes the deal for a good reason. The problem I then see is with the townspeople. He is helping them, but they shun and attack him because he has abandoned their faith. They become the villain here. In turn, they force him to take part in the joys of the flesh. He is made young and do whatever he wants. Again, this feels like because he was attacked for doing good, why not live for yourself. The problem here becomes the turmoil he puts the Duke of Parma and even worse, in the life of Gretchen. This is where Faust becomes a villain to me. Also, he isn’t given the whole truth from Mephisto. This then goes to not trusting the devil as well.
I’m not sure if there is more that I want to go into with the story so let me go over to the visuals. I didn’t realize that Fantasia borrowed from this. My favorite segment is legit something we get early here with a giant Mephisto around the largest structure in town. It looks amazing. I’d say that the rest of the cinematography is also good. It is impressive for early cinema. The miniature work is good so I’ll credit the effects there. Even making Ekman look old as the true Faust was impressive. I know I said visuals, but to finish out the filmmaking would be the soundtrack. I don’t know if this is the original score that is synced up or not. It worked for what they needed.
The last things then would be the acting. I thought I saw somewhere that at the time this came out, people did not like Ekman. He did good in my opinion taking on dual roles here. He is the wise old Faust and then when he gets scorned, we see the young version living in the sins of the flesh. Both were solid. Jannings is a great villain as Mephisto. The look they give him is perfect. Horn is good as this virtuous Gretchen. I feel horrible for her and what she goes through as none of it is her fault. She is pretty and caught the eye of Faust, nothing more. I’d also say that Frida Richard was good as her mother. William Dieterle as Valentin, Gretchen’s brother. We also get Yvette Guilbert as Marthe who I take it is a witch. She is also Gretchen’s aunt. Other than that, Barclay, Ralph, Fuetterer and the rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed.
In conclusion, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this movie. It tackles issues that were both relevant at the time but can still be argued today. That is impressive for a movie that is almost one hundred years old. The visuals are amazing, which is great for how old this is as well. Acting fit for what they needed. I’m intrigued even more to read the source material to see what is there and what is added for the film. If you’re interested in cinema of the era, give this a watch. It is an important piece in my opinion that I’m glad I can tick off my list.
My Rating: 8 out of 10