God and Satan war over earth; to settle things, they wager on the soul of Faust, a learned and prayerful alchemist. During a plague, Faust despairs and burns his books after failing to stop death; Satan sends Mephisto to tempt Faust, first with insight into treating the plague and then with a day's return to youth. Mephisto is clever, timing the end of this 24 hours as Faust embraces the beautiful Duchess of Parma. Faust trades his soul for youth. Some time later, he's bored, and demands on Easter Sunday that Mephisto take him home. Faust promptly sees and falls in love with the beautiful Gretchen, whose liaison with him brings her dishonor. Is there redemption? Who wins the wager?
Gösta Ekman ... Faust
Emil Jannings ... Mephisto
Camilla Horn ... Gretchen / Marguerite
Frida Richard ... Gretchens Mutter / Marguerite's mother
William Dieterle ... Valentin: Gretchens Bruder / Marguerite's brother (as Wilhelm Dieterle)
Yvette Guilbert ... Marthe Schwerdtlein: Gretchens Tante / Marguerite's aunt
Eric Barclay ... Herzog von Parma / Duke of Parma
Hanna Ralph ... Herzogin von Parma / Duchess of Parma
Werner Fuetterer ... Erzengel / Archangel
F.W. Murnau's "Faust. Eine deutsche Volkssage" (1926) is based on Goethe's "Faust I", the movie takes as direct text basis a libretto written by Hans Kyser which differs remarkably from Goethe's dramatic play. For example, Kyser motivates the physician Dr. Faustus's pact with Mephistopheles through his mercy for the victims of the plague, while in Goethe's work, the basic motivation of Dr. Faustus is the enlargement of his scientific knowledge. It is thus interesting to see that Mephisto or the devil represents the darkness from which all the additional knowledge seems to come which cannot be reached by Dr. Faustus in the world of the light in which God reigns. It is this negativity of the darkness as opposed to the positivity of the light that parallels the dichotomy of Good and Evil as well as the dichotomy of Volition and Cognition. So, Dr. Faustus' fundamental metaphysical attempt is to control the dark empire of the will that cannot be controlled by traditional science settled in the bright empire of the thought. It even seems that negativity stands for reflection, and reflection comes from the darkness that in the same time represents Evil. Moreover, since the Being is defined by the positivity of light, cognition and Good, the negativity of darkness, reflection and will must be defined by the Nothing, since in classical logic there is no third instance between them.
Therefore, we may see Murnau's "Faust" not only as a movie dealing with the ethic categories of Good and Evil, but also with the metaphysical categories of Being and Nothing. Dr. Faustus, signing his league with the devil, opens the curtain that separates the Here and the Beyond, he transgresses a border of no return. When Mephisto promises Dr. Faustus that he may enter the contract "only for one day", it is quite clear why Mephisto can always turn around the hour-glass in order to prolong the lasting of the league: Eternity cannot be split; if you take out a piece of Eternity there will remain still Eternity. Since Dr. Faustus is a human being and hence does not participate in Eternity, it follows that he will not be able to stand in this never-land between the contextures of Good and Evil, of Darkness and Light, of Cognition and Volition, of Being and Nothing, of Here and Beyond. His intermediary position is shown by Murnau in the often overlooked scene where Dr. Faustus, who had meanwhile turned by aid of the devil into a young man, is charming a young Indian princess while a pendulum above them is vacillating between light and darkness.
Murnau must have had in his mind a poly-contextural world when he shows us Mephisto holding the mirror in which the picture of the old Dr. Faustus appears, although he had already turned him into a youth. Not only does the mirror not reflect Mephisto who is holding it, but it reflects the picture of somebody else and even has a memory of the former state of this person. This phenomenon does not fit together at all with traditional logic in which the mirror can be seen as the operator who turns position into negation, falseness into truth and thus operates like a light-switch that, clicked on twice, leads back to the original state, i.e. from light via darkness back to light or from darkness via light back to darkness.
Now, at the end of his life, Dr. Faustus stays in the borderland between light and darkness that cannot be shown at the hand of a light-switch, since this never stops in an intermediary position between light and darkness. Because the light-switch serves as a model for classical logic, we have to deal in Murnau's "Faust" with trans-classical logic and thus with a world in which there are not only the dichotomic contextures Here and Beyond, Being and Nothing, Cognition and Volition, but a never-land as a third instance between them, and thus we read on one of Gerhart Hauptmann's titles the phrase "At the Gates of Darkness", the gates representing this third instance between the dichotomic contextures of classical logic.
When we read on another title toward the end of the movie "Death sets all men free", it is clear, that Dr. Faustus, after having entered the border-land between the Here and the Beyond by signing his pact with Mephisto, is on a trip that can only end in the Darkness, the Nothing and thus his Death. Once somebody has crossed the borderline between the contextures, he is on a trip of no-return. But such an end would fit into classical logic and thus not fit together with all the hints Murnau gives us toward polycontexturality. Murnau therefore needs a third instance between the contextures by which Dr. Faustus can be rescued from Death representing Evil in two-valued classical logic, both belonging to the contexture of the Nothing. Since Evil can only be neutralized by Good, this third instance must come from Good in order to finish Dr. Faustus's life not in the darkness of Evil, but in the light of Good, and this instance is his love to Gretchen. But in order to achieve that, Murnau needs another trick that does not fit into classical logic: Since Dr. Faustus has meanwhile turned back into the old man he was at the beginning of the movie, Gretchen must remember the alter ego of Dr. Faustus as a youngster, and Murnau shows this by fading over the pictures of the two alter egos of Dr. Faustus. In other words: Murnau achieves to establish Love as a third instance between the contextures of Good and Evil by doubling Dr. Faustus' individuality using paradoxically the dichotomic means of classical logic. When Dr. Faustus and Gretchens die together at the stake, they have finished their trip in to the light that leads them out of darkness: "Death sets all men free".
F.W. Murnau's telling of the classic German legend, 'Faust' is a masterpiece to behold. From both the technical and story standpoint, the film excels and despite being nearly eighty years old, Faust still stands tall as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. F.W. Murnau has become best known among film fans for 'Nosferatu', but this is unfair to the man. While Nosferatu is something of an achievement; it pales in comparison to this film in every respect. Faust is far more extravagant than Murnau's vampire tale, and it shows his technical brilliance much more effectively. The story is of particular note, and it follows a German alchemist by the name of Faust. As God and Satan war over Earth, the Devil preaches that he will be able to tempt Faust into darkness and so has a wager with God to settle things. Satan sends Mephisto to Earth to offer Faust an end to the plague that is making it's way through the local population, and eternal youth, in return for Faust's soul...
The way that Murnau creates the atmosphere in the film is nothing short of amazing. The lighting and use of shadows is superb, and helps to create a strong sense of dread at the same time as making the film incredibly easy on the eyes. It's the music that's the real star of the show, however, as it's absolutely fantastic and easily ranks up with the greatest scores ever written. The scenery is expressionistic and gives the film a strong sense of beauty (which is increased by the excellent cinematography), especially in the darker scenes; all of which are an absolute delight to behold. The story is undoubtedly one of the most important ever written, and within it is themes of good, evil, religion and most importantly, love. The points are never hammered home, and instead they are allowed to emancipate from the centre of the tale, which allows the audience to see them for themselves rather than being told; and that's just the way a story should be.
It's hard to rate the acting in silent cinema as being a member of a modern audience, I'm used to actors acting with dialogue and judging a performance without that is difficult. However, on the other hand; silent acting is arguably more difficult than acting with dialogue as the only way to portray your feelings to the audience is through expressions and gestures, and in that respect; acting is just another area where this film excels. In fact, there isn't an area that this film doesn't excel in and for that reason; it easily ranks up with the greatest films ever committed to the screen.
Having seen Murnaus Nosferatu and having enjoyed it immensely I had to check out some of his other films. Faust quickly caught my attention. After Murnau made Nosferatu, he was given the opportunity to do whatever film he wanted..and they gave him the huge budget to do it. The result was an impressive, visually stunning, supernatural film.
God and the Devil are fighting for who gets to control humanity. They do a wager, they decide that if Satan (aka as Mephisto) can corrupt Faust then all of humanity would belong to Mephisto. After the wager is on, Mephisto spreads the plague throughout Fausts town and people start dying. He decides to call upon the powers of darkness to help people out.
First off, more then anything, this movie is a true visual feast. How Murnau made this movie with the limited resources he had at the time is a true testament to his talent as a filmmaker. Heck, it was 1926, before make up fx, before stan winston, before blue screens and CGI, before anything! Yet, he managed to create an incredibly rich film. Heck this guy even managed to do a crane shot in the movie! In a scene where Faust and Mephisto are flying through the sky's...the camera swoops over a landscape filled with waterfalls, mountains and cliffs...all in one shot! I was actually amazed how with their limited technological resources Murnau managed to do this type of shot back in those days.
The imagery is amazing...starting with Mephisto spreading his gigantic black wings over Fausts small town. I kid you not when I say that, that image is one of the coolest images I have ever seen on any movie. Images of the horsemen of the apocalypse riding the sky's....angels with swords, Faust conjuring up Mephisto by reading from his book...man this movie was really something to behold. Its all wrapped around that black and white aura that gives the film that eerie feel. Kinda like the same feeling I got when I watched White Zombie. I love black and white horror visuals. And Faust was full of them.
Of special interest to me was that scene where Faust conjures up Mephisto by reading some words from a book, its truly a great movie moment with an incredible supernatural feel. The visuals of those circles of light emanating from the ground up towards the sky...that was amazing. And actually I think that scene influenced Francis Ford Copolla in Bram Stokers Dracula because he uses the exact same image of circles of light emerging from the ground.
Faust fantastical imagery truly demonstrates that Murnau had complete and total control over everything that he showed on the screen. The snow, the wind, the shadows, the lights...all perfectly handled to create the exact mood and feel that was required at them moment. Its quite obvious as well that this movies benefited from a much much bigger budget then Murnaus previous films. The sets look a lot like those on Caligari at times, the detailed miniatures are very well achieved and the extras are plentiful.
The performances are great, better then in Nosferatu. They are sometimes a bit exaggerated, but not as much as in other silent films I've seen before. On this one, the performances seemed just right to me. Of special mention is Emil Jannings as Mephisto. This guy played Beelzebub with some real relish. The character comes off as evil, treacherous, calculating...and he does it all with this smirk on his face. Great character. The make up on him is great and he kinda reminded me at times of Bela Lugosi as Dracula. But overall, hes performance was the best in the film. I also really enjoyed Camilla Horn as Gretchen, her scenes with her baby in the snow were great not only in the acting department but visually as well.
Overall, Id recommend this movie to those of you interested in German silent cinema. Its really something to see how even in those days, the imagination and creativity was there. And even the limited technological resources couldn't hold them back from creating a truly beautiful, haunting, spooky, supernatural film. For those of you who enjoyed films like Murnaus Nosferatu or Robert Wienes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari then you will most certainly love Faust.
I would certainly say it is far superior to the films mentioned before, yet for some reason doesn't get as much recognition. Check it out schmoes for a slice of the best horror silent cinema ever. Definitely worth a look.
# Director F.W. Murnau wanted Lillian Gish to play Gretchen, but she insisted that the film be shot by her favourite cinematographer Charles Rosher. Murnau instead cast newcomer Camilla Horn, whom he had met on the set of Herr Tartüff (1926) where she was a double for Lil Dagover.
# After the film had already been shot and edited, UFA decided it disliked Hans Kyser's script. Over Kyser's objections, it asked German writer Gerhart Hauptmann to work on it. However, the studio decided that it disliked Hauptmann's script even more. The film was released in Kyser's original version.
# Leni Riefenstahl applied for the female lead role, but was turned down.