Faust (1926, F.W. Murnau)

faust

!!! A+ FILM !!!

This seems at least partly generational, but in my experience the masterpiece Faust is seldom mentioned in a breath with untouchable silent classics such as Metropolis and The General. Even simply within the output of its own director, F.W. Murnau, it commands less space in the popular imagination than Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Sunrise. For anyone who discovers the film today and is thereby enchanted, it’s startlingly unclear how it’s not a movie that people are constantly discussing, in and outside of professional and scholarly circles. At the legendary Ufa studio that essentially was synonymous with German expressionism, Faust stands directly between the success of The Last Laugh and the future juggernaut Metropolis. In the context of Murnau’s career it showcases the artistic freedom he gained from Nosferatu and The Last Laugh; his budgetary limitations were minimal as he brought the German Faust legend to the screen. Indeed, his ingenuity was already ensuring a career in Hollywood, and by the time this film was completed he was already well on his way to Hollywood to shoot Sunrise.

The Faust legend has been brought to the screen on so many occasions before and since 1926 that there are ways in which Murnau’s mythical, reverent, whole-hearted approach might seem redundant now, as Nosferatu sometimes does. But Nosferatu, with its overabundance of title cards and exposition, represented a literary film with only sporadic (albeit stunning) cinematic interludes. Borrowing from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s stage tragedy, the director here takes care to transform Faust into something that more closely resembles and betters his wordless triumph The Last Laugh: it brings the story of a formerly pure man tempted by Satan toward a life of self-entitled wanderlust into an expressive story that doesn’t seem as though it could be told any way but visually, on any medium but film. His giddiness is palpable — one senses both a natural thrilling at the temporarily bottomless resources he was able to employ, also evident in his next film Sunrise wherein William Fox trusted him with the run of the studio, and the unstoppable force of his own tireless creativity. Outside of Citizen Kane, it’s difficult to name another movie so full of exciting ideas, all of them brilliantly employed.

The completeness of vision in Faust is not arbitrary; Murnau remains chiefly a storyteller, in this case a folklorist. Shots and sequences that might seem inscrutable and bizarre out of context have a clear place in his narrative here, utilizing the fuzzy logic of dreams and nightmares and the sheer sweeping nature of great parable to enhance his characters, their moral hiccups and the nastiness they endure in the world. Undoubtedly the most stirring vision in and of itself is that of the devilish Mephisto (Emil Jannings in likely his finest role) spreading his cape over a darkening, plague-ridden city rendered with surreal beauty as a miniature. Instead of distracting from an elegant yet morally complex story, such flourishes give it life and completeness; Murnau’s sure hand is never misused. When we are awestruck by a special effect like that of a parchment being emblazoned supernaturally with text or the many superimpositions of fire or magic, it’s because we are meant to be wowed and alarmed. Murnau is not showboating — he is seeking to make us breathless in our wonder. If you wonder what the restlessly imaginative films of Georges Melies felt like when they were truly new, this may be the closest we can come to replicate that feeling, all the more amazingly since this film is now nearly a century old — and still gets the viewer good and lost.

Such magic is possible because of the unlimited budget afforded Murnau by Ufa in the aftermath of his two prior internationally influential successes; in terms of its production values, this remains a handsome and impressive film, its practical effects immaculately preserved and clearly elaborate beyond the standards of film in Germany or even Hollywood at the time. What’s even more evident — and less cynical to dwell on — is Murnau’s own growth as a filmmaker since Nosferatu, which boasted impressive and indelible visuals but also employed a camera that seldom moved and certainly never achieved the constant friskiness and verve of what cinematographer Carl Hoffman achieves in Faust. The Last Laugh had injections of this sort of wildness and abstraction that might have made it an avant garde picture in other hands, but it seems only a step toward the all-out abandon of this film’s ceaselessly surprising trickery and compositions.

In the first seconds of the picture, your heart is all but stopped by a chilling and fully immersive portrait of hell on earth — demons riding and alight, a universe of fire and pestilence — and even with the knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of moviemaking, the effect is truly otherworldly. Its frightening fullness, along with the shocking contrast of an angelic figure, clearly inspired the “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” sequence in Fantasia. The preponderance of evil manifests in the little town’s epidemic of plague, captured more chillingly than in any later film. However, Murnau’s evolution is most pronounced later, with his extremely agile use of cranes and a zooming, untethered camera: when Mephisto recruits Faust for a nighttime ride across the sky to an amoral netherworld of brutality and temptation in Italy, it is given to us in a staggering point-of-view shot that stretches us far beyond the boundaries of movie practicality, into the true realm of the limitless imagined.

And there are the sets — the strange town’s buildings out of Grimm or Caligari, the moonlit nightscapes so strongly suggestive of the richly imagined plains in Sunrise and City Girl, the frozen and unforgiving world in which the object of Faust’s infatuation Gretchen is eventually trapped, positioned starkly as a Joan of Arc / Mary Magdalene figure fully consequent of his indulgences. Again, however, none of these crazed, eye-popping visuals exist merely to impress; Murnau hangs back when the story requires subtlety to deliver, and this is what makes him a true poet of pure cinema. His oblique morals are a delight, too; straightforward as the tale is, knowing his own outside-society yearnings, you can’t help sensing a delight in the smirk Mephisto never wipes off his face, which is occasionally employed for comic relief, as when Mephisto attempts to stir up shit by questioning the honor of a woman in the presence of her brother then instantly follows it up with a toast to her.

Faust would be Murnau’s last German film; he would reach new heights in America but would be quickly circumvented by thrifty studio politics. One doubts strongly that he could have gone much farther artistically than Faust had he stayed in Germany — borne out by the knowledge that no one else did either, with Fritz Lang edging closest, matching Murnau for technique and ingenuity but never for personal depth. Though it may lack the emotional intensity of Sunrise, Faust is no less a monument to romantic love in the final analysis — as the lovers engage in a last kiss while they burn to death, both damned in the eyes of a pious society, both ultimately punished for their own human nature, one cannot ignore Murnau’s constructive message of hope or that he truly does believe all the sap about love being The Word. You excuse the excess because it’s so sincere, and because what brought us to it is a work of mastery so large and poetic, a great artist permitted to run rampant and fashion an age-old allegory into a world unto itself. Few films are so readily breathtaking.

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