Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

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Film review by Jason Day of the silent epic from F.W. Mourn about an old man who sells his soul to the devil in return for his youth. Starring Gosta Ekman and Emil Jannings.

Director: F.W. Murnau. 106 mins. Parufamet (Paramount/MGM & Ufa).

Silent

 

Synopsis

The demon Mephisto (Jannings) places a bet with an angel (Fueterrer) that he can corrupt the soul of a pure man, the elderly Professor Faust (Ekmann). If he wins, he will have dominion over all of the Earth. Faust, a devoted academic who has never experienced mortal pleasure, is granted eternal youth and beauty and soon sees the upside to indulging himself, with Mephisto happy to give him whatever he asks for. Along the way, Faust encounters the beautiful and virginal Gretchen (Horn), a woman he desires to love him above all else

Review, by Jason DayFaust poster

In English, the original title means ‘A German Folktale’, though it would never have been made without the American money provided (Paramount and MGM gave huge dollars through the ‘Parufamet’ agreement that also saw top flight German talent like director Murnau poached by Hollywood).

And what a talented guy Murnau was to present us with a dizzying series of powerful images. From the chilling Four Horseman of the Apocalypse cantering across the sky, Mephisto blocking out the sun as he spreads a plague, to a brisk cloak-ride across the world, this is an extraordinarily well-staged movie. It’s almost too much for the eyes as if Murnau, like Faust, has been granted an other worldly gift, in this case God-like directorial skills. This was his last German film before heading to California.

Based on Goethe’s classic play about good and evil, the saying ‘They don’t make ’em like this anymore’ could have been coined for this type of movie. Looking at the impressive production design, it’s easy to see why. Herlth and Rohrig were two of the most influential set designers in movie history. Usually working in tandem, they were responsible for the twisted, distorted sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and must have thought all their cinematic christmases had come at once when they found out about their budget for this. From the intricate model miniatures (the town that Mephisto looms over comes complete with working chimneys) to gloomy, sparse interiors, the creation of this mini world is an optical treat. But even they must have admitted they had more money than they knew what to do with when creating the Duchess of Parma’s wedding feast (elephants as well as fireworks and dancing girls?).

Jannings fills the screen as only he ever could, with an immense performance that totally suits an epic production. It is a turn of great gusto, with wonderful shades of humour within the villainy, saucy looks and outrageous mannerisms, Mephisto frequently sticks his tongue out and thinks nothing of rubbing women’s breasts and spitting over walls.

The Swedish star Ekmann was an actor noted for his versatility, but it is still astonishing to realise that it is really him playing the crusty old Faust and his younger, beautiful self. Full plaudits to the make-up department too.

Guilbert provides some exceptional comic relief as Gretchen’s aunt Marthe, a secret drinker with an eye for Mephisto. This leads to some hugely enjoyable pantomime as she chases him around her house, resulting in some inspired gurning.

The American silent film actress Lillian Gish missed a trick in turning down the role of Gretchen. The part went to Horn and, despite the overly saintly nature of this role, she manages to scrub a little deeper. Gretchen may be pious, but she also has human failings of lust and greed and in her looks and body language, Horn is able to portray this and make the girl a rounded person. Gretchen also suffers every ignominy life can throw at her – for a woman at least, there is payback for enjoying yourself.

The barrage of camera effects and trickery can become a little too much, but thankfully they don’t completely swamp the story. There are some bizarre touches (the plague workers who carry out the dead look uncomfortably like Ku Klux Klan members), but Faust is a unique experience and deserves full appreciation.

As a side note, Dieterle, who appears as Gretchen’s brother, makes a rare appearance in front of the camera. He too would travel to America, becoming a successful film director helming such films as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

Cast & credits

Producer: Erich Pommer.
Writer: Hans Kyler.
Camera: Carl Hoffmann.
Music: William Axt (1926), Bernd Schultheis (2000 reissue).
Sets: Robert Herlth, Walter Rohrig.

Gosta Ekmann, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, William Dieterle, Frida Richard, Yvette Guilbert, Eric Barclay, Hanna Ralph, Werner Fueterrer.

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