Today I watched F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926)
Based on an age old German tale and more specifically Goethe’s version, the titular Faust is an alchemist and man of reason in the late Middle Ages who becomes the center of a bet between an archangel and the Devil. The Devil demands that the archangel give him control of Earth as humans are a sinful lot but the angel rebukes with a wager, if he can destroy what is divine in the soul of the righteous Faust, he can control the world. First the Devil sets about by infecting Faust’s town with the plague, while Faust prays for help the bodies just keep piling up until his faith begins to crack. At this time Faust impeaches the infernal powers and is answered by the demon Mephisto who offers him the power to cure the Plague but despite invoking him, Faust is hesitant to accept. So Mephisto offers him a teaser, one day of power, and if he likes it, he can have it eternally for his soul. At first this seems to be working in the Devil’s favour, until Faust is repelled by a sick girl’s cross and he is wracked with guilt over his decision. So Mephisto tries a new angle and offers him a truly delicious gift, youth, and this gift Faust accepts. But while he enjoys the sordid fruits of youth, he still feels an emptiness that even the Devil cannot fill, perhaps in this longing his salvation, and that of all humanity, can be found.
So much has changed in the language of film since the silent era that it is almost another medium entirely. The visual design is unlike anything from today outside of Guy Maddin’s fantastical throwbacks. As such these kind of films are as dated as you can get, their very diction is old, but Murnau was a master of that diction and his works hold all sorts of morsels for the astute viewer. Another thing worth looking at in these old films are the special effects, many of which still hold up today for their practical ingenuity and camera trickery. The artifice of the effects seems to be highlighted in these old works, there was a wonder to them and audiences were wowed by the artifice in and of itself. Murnau was very good at highlighting this while not allowing his films to devolve into pure effects pieces, which have existed for as long as film itself, he uses the effects to bolster up an already compelling story.
So if you can enjoy the old style of silent film this is an absolute must. If you are not so sold on the idea of silent cinema, this may not be the film to win you over, for as strong as the story is, it still drags in the middle because of it’s dated story structure. The film comes alive in the spectacular opening and the climactic finale, but by modern standards the middle is very slow and the visual excitement all comes in the bookends it seems. But in these moments, this film presents pure movie magic of a style that is more or less lost to time, and for that it gets a hearty recommend it. 4/5