F.W. Murnau was a director who fused the sweeping atmosphere of silent film, with a visual poetry all of his very own and in doing so crafted some of the most incredible films ever made. Before heading to Hollywood in the late 1920s – where he would make the sensational Sunrise (1927) – his final film in his native Germany was the prestige horror classic Faust (1926), a reworking of the well-known legend using Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play as a starting point. A striking retelling, it explores the relationship of good and evil to stunning effect and has gone on to influence countless films since. It now arrives on UK Blu-ray for the first time courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label.
The film opens not with the infamous deal being struck, but a wager between the saintly Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) and the diabolical demon known as Mephisto (Emil Jannings). The malevolent beast is offered dominion over the Earth, but only if he is able to corrupt the purest of all pure men, the titular Faust (Gösta Ekman). Faust is an elderly scholar, striving for knowledge in his small town when the devil besieges his home with a ruinous plague. Racked with the guilt of being unable to cure his fellow countrymen, our desperate protagonist enters into a pact with Mephisto who then temps him further towards destruction with the gift of youth. Now a young man, Faust is governed by his carnal urges as his fiendish guardian watches on from the shadows with a cruel grin on his face.
The shadows and their juxtaposition with light were always of concern to Murnau who explored not only their direct contrast but the gamut of potential meanings and ambiguities that lie in both the literal and allegorical chiaroscuro of his cinematic work. In Faust, Carl Hoffman’s cinematography provides an exquisite compositional complement to Murnau’s narrative – truly a marvel to behold, almost every frame a work of art in an of itself. “Out of all filmmakers,” states French director Eric Rohmer in the booklet that accompanies this new release, “F. W. Murnau is perhaps the one who knew how to organise the space in his films in the most rigorous and inventive manner.” Such a statement is difficult to contradict on this evidence, with some shots etched eternally into the memory of audiences and film history scholars alike.
It’s not just his visuals over which Murnau has utter mastery, but the story on this occasion is one that alienates many viewers. When Faust begins to lust after the beautiful young Gretchen (Camilla Horn in a role intended for Lillian Gish) the film lurches into romantic melodrama that puts some people off. Despite appearing to be a lighter chapter, is never shakes a sense of impending doom and proves pivotal to the horrifying finale. That Faust – like its heinous villain – shifts and morphs are crucial to the legacy of this silent masterpiece in all of its tragedy and grandeur.