Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was one of the most celebrated directors in the world when he embarked on his adaptation of Goethe's classic play Faust (1926). His 1924 feature The Last Laugh (1924), a story told with a minimum of intertitles and camerawork of unprecedented mobility, was hailed as a masterpiece of storytelling sophistication. It was enormously successful in Germany and around the world and became one of the most influential silent films ever made. UFA, which had produced The Last Laugh, signed him to two major prestige projects and Hollywood called with an offer to direct in America, which Murnau accepted. After he completed Tartuffe, Murnau started work on what would be his final German film and UFA gave Murnau a blockbuster budget and the resources of studio to create one of the most visually magnificent films of the era.
Murnau's Faust, scripted by Carl Mayer and subtitled "A German Folk Saga," reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil, with Faust as a kind of modern day Job. Mephisto (Emil Jannings, as a hulking bestial being with massive gargoyle wings) and the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Seigfried with feathery wings that tower over him) debate the goodness of mankind in an abstract celestial setting, where shafts of light breath through storm clouds like the dawn coming through the dark night. "I'll wager that I can wrest Faust's soul from God!" he bets the Archangel, who accepts (confident of mankind's goodness and, apparently, unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure). Mephisto emerges over a picaresque mountain village, a looming monster who hovers over the innocent town like a storm of evil, his cloak smothering it in darkness while spreading noxious fumes that carry the plague. The image is astounding, a vision of darkness and pestilence personified and an image of pure visual power.
The wizened scientist and alchemist Faust (Swedish actor Gösta Ekman) despairs so from his inability to save his fellow man that he tosses the Bible into the fire and summons the Devil at the crossroads. His fate is sealed with a signature in blood and the temptations of power and sex. Mephisto makes Faust young and offers him his pick of maidens, and then brings tragedy upon the innocent young woman that Faust loves and seduces: Gretchen (Camilla Horn), a beautiful German maiden in pigtails and a glow of purity that is defiled by Mephisto's manipulations. Not even D.W. Griffith's tormented heroines suffered so at the hands of a hypocritical society.
Camilla Horn is Murnau's Teutonic Lillian Gish in a Wagnerian melodrama. In fact, Murnau had approached Gish for the role, but she was a major Hollywood star with tremendous clout of her own – she brought Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjostrom to Hollywood to direct her in The Scarlet Letter - and demanded that Murnau use her regular cameraman, Charles Rosher, which Murnau refused. Murnau found his Gretchen in Horn, an unknown 22-year-old dancer whose legs made brief appearance (standing in for Lil Dagover's gams) in Murnau's Faust. Murnau put Horn through an ordeal almost as unrelenting as the fictional Gretchen to draw a performance out of her, according to her autobiography. At one point, Horn was dragged across the stage in iron chains so many times that her knees bled and the crew took pity on her. "But I adored Murnau," she insisted years later. John Barrymore was initially considered for the role of Faust, for commercial prospects in the U.S., until he saw Gösta Ekman in Victor Sjostrom's Ven Domer and traveled to Sweden to cast him in to play both the young and, under heavy make-up, old Faust. They are impressive as parts of Murnau's mise-en-scene but rather bland as performers, especially next to the histrionics of Emil Jannings, the celebrated silent star whose broad style and hammy expressions still stand as the most exaggerated approach of silent film acting. Jannings delivers a larger than life performance just to compete with the magnificent sets and the scale of the effects. The approach is perfect for playing the dark prince Mephisto under massive wings that dominate the screen, but rather much when he slips into moral scale and flirts with Gretchen's aunt like a salacious satyr.
Faust is a tragedy drawn in magnificent images like paintings in light and shadow and is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful of Murnau's German films. Leaving nothing to chance, Murnau shot the film entirely in the studio, where he could maintain complete control of every aspect of the image. "At the height of his career, Murnau was able to mobilize all those forces which guaranteed him complete control of the film's space," wrote critic turned director Eric Rohmer in 1977. "Every formal element – the faces and bodies of actors, objects, landscapes, and such natural phenomenon as snow, light, fire and clouds – have been created or recreated with exact knowledge of their visual effect. Never has a film left so little to chance." Murnau's epic canvas creates drama by the sheer scale of his images and the masterful play of light, shadow, and mist on his beautifully designed sets. Karl Freund was set to shoot the film but had pull out due to illness, and it was Carl Hoffman (who had shot Dupont's Variety and Fritz Lang's Seigfried and Kriemhild's Revenge) who executed the complex camerawork and optical effects to bring Murnau's visions to the screen. The imagery of Mephisto and the Archangel is operatic and grandiose, yet delicately textured and intricately lit. Lucifer and Faust take a magic carpet ride around the world, looking down on jagged mountainscapes and fairy-tale kingdoms of opulence and decadence in a spectacle of expressionistically exaggerated miniatures and trick photography. An innocent staked to a pyre to burn for her sins becomes a scene of transcendence, at once harrowing and spiritual. You can see the influences of Murnau's painstakingly created images and magnificent effects in such silent masterpieces as Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Car Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Murnau shot separate negatives for different territories and there exist at least seven negatives of Faust, each composed of slightly different takes. The differences between the versions are subtle, but some contain different framing and editing choices, and some show Murnau rethinking his visual choices over the course of the takes. Murnau personally supervised the American version and made slight changes to text and in some cases reworked images to make them more clear to American audiences. Kino released that version on DVD a few years ago. This new "Restored Deluxe Edition" features a newly mastered edition of the original German version, restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. It's a beautiful print with rich tones and it features the gorgeous original German intertitles, hand-painted cards with text over an abstract background of bold black strokes on a white background that suggests a stormy struggle between the forces of dark and light. The new restoration also features two scores – a compilation score of "historic photoplay music" by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (recorded in 5.1 Stereo Surround) and a piano score adapted from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement.
The 53-minute documentary "The Language of Shadows: Faust," a chapter from a German documentary series presented with English narration, explores the making of the film through film clips, sketches by art director Robert Herlth and interviews. Also features twelve minutes of recently rediscovered screen test footage of Lubitsch's abandoned 1923 production Marguerite and Faust and galleries of set designs and stills. The second disc features the previously released U.S. version of the film, produced by David Shepard and featuring an original orchestral score by Timothy Brock performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.
For more information about Faust, visit Kino International. To order Faust, go to TCM Shopping.
by Sean Axmaker
- Two-DVD edition featuring the restored German version (with optional English subtitles) and the previous U.S. release version
- “The Language of Shadows: Faust,” a 53-minute documentary on the making of Murnau’s film
- New musical score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra in 5.1 Stereo Surround or 2.0 Stereo
- The lost screen test footage of Ernst Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production Marguerite and Faust.
- Image Gallery
- Essay by film historian Jan Christopher Horak