A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, May 2, 2016

Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)

Power corrupts, as we knew long before John Dalberg-Acton so nicely formulated it for us. It's the truth underlying so many myths, from the Garden of Eden to the Nibelungenlied to the Faust legend. Goethe's Faust is a philosophical poem, a closet drama not designed for stage or film, but that hasn't prevented playwrights, opera librettists, or screenwriters from making the attempt. F.W. Murnau's version is probably the most distinguished cinematic attempt, but not because of its fidelity to the source. Murnau's version works because it concentrates on the power struggle, initially between Good, as represented by the archangel (Werner Fuetterer), and Evil, as represented by Mephisto (Emil Jannings), and later by the attempt of Faust (Gösta Ekman) to obtain mastery over Time. It begins with a wager, borrowed from the book of Job, between the archangel and Mephisto, over whom Faust's soul will belong to. Then it eventually devolves into what is the core of most dramatic treatments of Goethe's story, the seduction of Gretchen (Camilla Horn), with the aid of Mephisto. In the end, both Gretchen and Faust are redeemed by his willingness to sacrifice himself, an abnegation of power. But that too-familiar story is distinguished by Murnau's staging of it, with the significant help of Carl Hoffmann's cinematography and the art direction of Robert Herlth and Walter Röhrig. This is one of the most beautiful of silent films because of the interplay between light and dark, a superb evocation of the paintings of Rembrandt in the way scenes are composed and lighted. The tone of the film is set near the beginning by the spectacular image (above) of a gigantic Mephisto looming over a German town, which clearly influenced the similar scene in the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). Jannings manages to be both sinister and gross as Mephisto -- the latter mode most in evidence in his scenes with Gretchen's lustful Aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert). (If Guilbert looks familiar it's because, as a Parisian cabaret singer during the Belle Époque, she was the subject of numerous portraits by Toulouse-Lautrec.) This was the last of Murnau's films in Germany: The following year he moved to Hollywood, where he made probably his greatest film, Sunrise. He was soon followed to America by the actor who played Gretchen's brother, Valentin, William Dieterle, who became a prominent Hollywood director.