Directed by the celebrated German filmmaker F. W. Murnau Faust much like his masterpiece Nosferatu is a visually spectacular silent cinematic spectacle that has influenced hundreds of horror’s since it was made 88 years ago.
Most fascinating of all is that the version which Eureka! have released as part of the brilliant Masters of Cinema series of Blu-ray’s and DVD’s has only recently been seen by audiences outside of Germany due to the existence of several domestic and international cuts, all of them inferior to the original.
A perfectionist through and through Murnau filmed everything with two cameras shooting from slightly different angles and selecting the best takes for the domestic version. This meant that the cuts exported across the world ended up containing a catalogue of errors with less impressive special effects, multiple mistakes and even human stand in’s for real animals.
Thankfully Faust has finally been fully restored with a gorgeous 1080p transfer of the domestic German print along with a choice of three different scores from harp to piano to orchestra as well as audio commentary by critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn, features comparing the different versions and a full documentary all of which emphasizes and celebrates the importance and beauty of the film.
Although many movies have been made either directly or indirectly telling the classic tale of Faust who sells his soul to the devil Murnau takes his inspiration from not only German folk legend but also the works of Goethe, Gounod, and Marlowe.
Opening on an epic confrontation between the lord of the underworld Mephisto (Emil Jannings) and an Archangel the pair make a wager for dominion over the Earth all bet on the soul of one elderly professor, Faust (Gosta Ekman).
Mephisto quickly sets about attempting to corrupt Faust by placing a plague on his town killing off the inhabitants one by one as the old man watches helpless and distraught while he desperately tries to find a cure. As the bodies pile up Faust fails again and again and losing faith in his religion and his scientific knowledge he renounces both invoking the aid of Satan to stop the apocalyptic disease.
After being told to go to the crossroads to meet with Mephisto Faust is terrified when the devil appears and follows him home offering him his services and unparalleled powers as Faust’s slave in exchange for his soul. Seduced by the ability to save his town Faust sign’s his eternal life away but the devil has many tricks up his sleeve and the pair start off on a long and twisting road that will ultimately lead to great tragedy and pain.
Much like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari one of the most surprising things about Faust is how modern it feels for a silent movie made in the 1920’s. This is due primarily to Murnau’s amazing art direction and excellent photography with many shots appearing as moving works of art especially in the first act where the imagery is most powerful and poignant.
Along with the creative special affects the composition of the shots is innovative and striking with fantastic framing and skillful use of the foreground and background in every scene which considering the period it was made is extremely impressive.
Emil Jannings Mephisto bounces between being a malignant menace and a comedic clown just staying the right side at all times however the acting in general is much more subtle than one would expect especially from Gosta Ekman as Faust and Camilla Horn who plays Gretchen the primary love interest whose story takes a shocking and dark turn in the final act of the film.
Although the film slips into a light romantic comedy in the central section overall Faust is a dark drama that deals with heavy themes of spirituality, humanity, love and death offering up a barrage of religious and apocryphal imagery that still manages to have a massive impact on the audience in both its beauty and its horror.
Excerpt from “Tony Rayns on FAUST: