F. W. Murnau was one of the boldest and imaginative artists working during the silent period of German Expressionism. Along with his horror classic Nosferatu, his creation of Faust is considered one of the greatest of all supernatural fantasies; and the visionary Murnau was so distinctive with his use of canvas that he constructed one of the most haunting vistas of heaven and hell. The extraordinary use of special effects can be witnessed with the iconic shot of Mephisto as he largely hovers above the helpless village with his gigantic wings obscuring the light and shadow of the night sky, or where Faust burns his books and uses black magic to create a ring of fire when calling out to the Devil. Murnau offered such a feeling of depth and perceptive throughout his artistry, especially with the breathtaking shots of Faust taking a flight through the skies on Mephisto's cape, as we watch the two of them soar past villages and farms and mountains and rivers while the earth from below seems to be collapsing beneath them. The German Expressionism movement was an artistic style beginning in Germany before the first World War. German Expressionism painted a frightening and hostile landscape of abstract shapes, bizarre angles, twisted shadows and distorted sets, as it's building architecture seemed to be slightly off kilter with many of the props being painted on floors and walls to represent light and shadows that were geometrically off-balance. This odd visual look was intentional to give the viewer a feeling of inner emotional reality rather than realism, as it's unsettling sets of instability created a feeling of claustrophobia and space collapsing around the viewer.
The film's opening sequence brilliantly shows the four horsemen of the apocalypse, shrouded in darkness, galloping through a dense black mist, with beams of light piercing towards them through gaps in the clouds. The ominous, black form of Mephisto then consumes the lower bottom right of the frame, a silhouette, as the archangel appears in beautiful, shining white in the upper left of the frame. This opening sequence quickly establishes, the dynamic contrast between good and evil and light and dark that will become metaphors throughout the rest of the film. The demon Mephisto has a bet with the Archangel in that he can corrupt a righteous man's soul and destroy in him what is divine. If he succeeds, the Devil will win dominion over earth.
"Behold! The gates of hell have opened and the horrors of the masses hunt over the earth..."
"Demons of hell on dragons riding through the skies with swords as the devil is watching. An angel appears saying, "Get back! Halt! Why dost thou torture humanity with war, plague and famine?"
"The earth is mine!"
"The earth will never be thine! Man is good: His spirit strives for truth! Look down there! All things in heaven and on earth are wonderful! But the greatest miracle of all is man's freedom to choose between good and evil!"
"Didst thou see Faust?" "A rouge like all the rest! He teaches good and does evil! He seeks gold and the philosopher's stone."
"Faust is looking at a large crystal ball as he pours portions on it."
"I'll wager that I shall wrest Faust's soul from God!" "If thou canst destroy the divine in Faust, The earth is mine!" "NO man can resist evil! The wager is on!"
The scene shifts down to the village where an elderly alchemist named Faust lives, and the camera pans over a crowd of street performers watching a shadow play, in which two hands in silhouette seem to emphasize the manipulation and puppetry that play such a central role to the story. In a extraordinary sequence Mephisto largely hovers above the helpless village with his gigantic monsterous wings obscuring the light and shadow of the night sky, and delivers a plague to the village. "The plague! The plague!" People scream as the performer on stage collapses and within a short period of time half the town lays dying as bodies pile up. Faust watches helplessly from his window, as he sees hooded figures carrying corpses to a charnel-pit, and struggles in prayer to find a cure for the plague, "Bless this act of redemption Lord God! Only you can end this misery!"
A villager comes to Faust's door pleading that her father is dying. When Faust tries to cure the man, the man dies on him. Mortal terror and rage fill the town and Faust begins to lose hope. Disheartened Faust says to the villagers, "Belief will not help you, nor shall knowledge!" Faust angrily throws his alchemy books in the fire, and then the Bible too. One book opens to a chapter titled: The Powerful Threefold Key to Controlling Evil Spirits which shows how to have power and glory by making a pact with the Devil. Faust reads "And if thou seeks to swear an oath to the Prince of Darkness, so that he wouldst grant thee all power and glory in the world...then go to a crossroads and call to him three times." Faust goes to the crossroads as described in the book's procedure and conjures up the forces of evil by announcing the words: ""I call to thee for help, O Spirit of Darkness! Show theself!"
With the sudden creation of lightning and wind the demonic Mephisto appears at the roadside sitting with his legs crossed and greets Faust by removing his hat. Faust becomes frightened at what he has done and tries to flee from the demon, but everywhere he goes Mephisto seems to already be there waiting for him. When returning home Mephisto is waiting for him and says, "Thou has summoned me. Here I am." Faust yells, "Get away from me Satan!" Mephisto informs Faust that he had made a 24-hour bargain with the Devil showing him a contract (in which the words burn right into the contract that Mephisto is holding). Faust will have Mephisto's service till the sand runs out in an hourglass at which time the Devil will rescind the pact. Faust asks Mephisto if he would be able to help the hungry and the sick and Mephisto smiles and says, "Your wish is my command. You are the master, I am your servant."
Faust is forced to sign the contract in blood. Someone comes to Faust's door with a sick loved one and Faust automatically cures them with his new found power. Suddenly everyone in the village brings their sick ones to Faust but when Faust cannot seem to look upon the holy cross that one villager is holding, the villagers discover he is in league with the devil. "Stone him!" they yell and so Faust locks himself in his room. Faust then makes a further deal with Mephisto, who gives Faust back his youth and offers him earthly pleasures and a kingdom, in return for his immortal soul. Mephisto blows onto the fire place and he slowly becomes larger than life and transforms Faust into a hansom young man with a sudden burst of fire and smoke. .
Mephisto tempts Faust with the vision of a beautiful woman and Faust demands for Mephisto to take him to her. Mephisto says, "Step on my cloak, and the earth revolves around you!" In one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film the two fly through the window and over the city into the clouds. They soar past villages and farms, rivers and streams, mountains and fields, trees and waterfalls while the earth from below seems to be collapsing beneath them. "The wedding celebration of Duchess of Parma: The most beautiful woman in Italy!" announces Mephisto as he takes Faust to a wedding feast in Parma, to meet the subject of his vision, an Italian Duchess. Faust gets the Duchess alone so he can seduce her while he leaves Mephisto alone to kill her groom.
Just as Faust is about to make love to the Duchess the sands run out and Mephisto informs Faust that he is obliged to seal the deal permanently in order to continue his love-making. Faust is frightened that he will be transformed back to an elderly man and so he agrees for his soul to be Mephisto's forever. There's a slightly humorous scene of Faust making love to the Italian Duchess while Mephisto gleefully watches from above the bed. Time passes and the all-powerful Faust feels he has used his youth and power to the fullest and he soon becomes bored and unfulfilled. "Do you want a woman, a card game, an orgy? Whatever you wish, I must fulfill it. Do you want the emperors crown?" Mephisto asks Faust magically showing him a crown. Faust soon grows weary of debauchery and yearns for Home.
Faust orders Mephisto to take him back to his village. When returning Faust falls in love with an innocent girl named Gretchen, as she tends daily mass."An innocent girl running to the clergy...she's not for you," Mephisto says to Faust. "I know more obliging wenches for you here!" Faust ignores Mephisto's advise and says that he wants her and that Mephisto must do has he commands. Faust follows the innocent girl home where she lives with her mother and brother Valentin. Mephisto places a demonic gold chain into Gretchen's home, which will magically charm Gretchen into loving Faust. After finding the gold chain in her drawer, Gretchen decides to head over to Aunt Marthe's and show her it.
Gretchen puts on the gold necklace and admires it in Aunt Marthe's mirror. She than heads outside to play with the children in the garden, as Faust believes it is the right time to approach her. There is a comedic sequence in which Faust seems to be playfully chasing Gretchen and the village children outside in the garden, while Faust playfully teases Aunt Marthe inside her home. The spell seems to work and Gretchen is in love with Faust. Like a giddy schoolgirl Gretchen decides to pick a flower from the garden wondering if the man she just met loves her or not. Faust appears and the two embrace and kiss confirming her romantic wishes meanwhile Mephisto barely escapes from Aunt Marthe's aggressive romantic advances just in time.
The evening arrives as Faust sneaks around Gretchen's bedroom window, eventually inviting himself inside. Mephisto decides to stir up trouble for this new blossoming romance by inciting her brother Valentin while he is out drinking with friends. As Valentin and friends drink and make a toast, Mephisto appears and says,"To the prettiest girl in town! There's no girl as pretty as your sister! Long live Gretchen! A pretty girl who is not well behaved." Mephisto then incites Valentin to angrily run home and catch his sister's lover in her bedroom.
Meanwhile Mephisto returns to Gretchen's home and purposely frightens the mother which results to her dropping dead from shock. When Valentin arrives home and catches Faust in his sisters bedroom the two fight in a sword duel out in the street, which leads to Valentin's death when Mephisto intervenes and stabs Valentin in the back. Mephisto then goes around town shouting "Murder...Murder!. ." Faust and Mephisto quickly flee as Gretchen and the rest of the village run out to find Valentin dying in the streets. Valentin condemns Faust for his murder and his sister for being entangled with him in his dying breath, as he says to her, "Don't touch me you whore...your lover has murdered me!"
Because of the death of her mother and brother Gretchen is put in the stocks and subjected to jeering and ridicule and eventually gives birth to a child by Faust. She and her baby is eventually banished onto the streets as Gretchen tries to survive a horrifying blizzard. In a disturbing and heartbreaking scene Gretchen is freezing to death in the blizzard while cradling her newborn baby, and she has a vision of a warm cradle while she lies her child down on the snow to die. Soldiers find Gretchen with her dead baby and they declare her a murderess and Gretchen is sent to be burned at the stake.
"Faust...Faust...help your Gretchen..." Gretchen pleads as her shouting reaches across the other side of the world to Faust, and Faust realizes that Mephisto has deceived him. Faust demands that Mephisto take him back to the village to save her, but Mephisto says, "Too late! They're already tying your lover to the stake!" Faust tells Mephisto that he is still his servant and orders him to take him back to the village to put things right. While waiting her execution Gretchen lies in a prison cell in near complete darkness, as the shadows of the prison bars cast upon her face as she imagines an earlier happier time with Faust.
Faust arrives too late just as the fire has been started and helplessly watches saying, "If only I had never wished for youth which caused such misery. Damn! Damn the delusion of youth!" Faust wishes he had never asked to have his youth back. Mephisto says, "You cursed youth yourself. I must fulfill whatever your wish! Be as you were: An old man!" The devil smashes the mirror with Faust's reflection and Faust loses his youth as he runs through the assembled mob towards Gretchen. Now an old man Faust throws himself onto the fire to be with his beloved as he says to her, "Forgive...forgive my sin..." Gretchen recognizes Faust and sees him in her heart as a young man as the fire consumes them together. The two kiss as the two spirits rise to the heavens.
Mephisto returns to the heavens to confront the The Archangel. The Archangel reveals to the demon Mephisto that he has lost the bet because Love has triumphed over all.
"This is no place for thee. My pact is binding! One word destroys the pact!"
"What word is that? The word that rings joyfully through creation, the word that alleviates every pain and sorrow, the word that absolves all the guilt of humanity, the eternal word...Dost thou not know it?"
"What is the word?"
Much of the style that Faust embodied was of German Expressionism, which was one of many creative styles and movements that came out of Germany after their defeat in World War I. UFA studios which was Germany's principal film studio at that time, decided for the film industry to go private which largely confined Germany and isolated the country from the rest of the world. In 1916, the government had banned any foreign films in the nation, and so the demand from theaters to generate films led to the rise of film production from 24 films released in 1914 to a high 130 films in 1918.
German Expressionism and its aesthetics was first derived from German Romanticism and of architecture, painting, and of the stage, most famously from German set designers Herman Warm, Walter Rorhig, and Walter Reimann. Much of German Expressionism's style and design expressed interior realities via exterior realities and emotionalism rather than objectivity or realism. Many films of German Expressionism used bizarre set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The world that characters inhabit in a German Expressionism film are full of exaggerated landscapes and environments of abstract shapes, angles, shadows and distorted sets. The building architecture is off kilter, jagged and many of the props seem to be geometrically off-balance. This unusual visual look is intentional off course to give the viewer a feeling of inner emotional reality rather than realism. It's unsettling sets of instability gives the feeling of claustrophobia and space collapsing around the viewer.
The actor's in German Expressionism films usually wear heavy make-up, their acting is greatly exaggerated and their movements are jerky and unnatural to blend in with the stylistic and abstract environment. German Expressionistic's odd and distorted style are as unrealistic as the dilution of its main character who's narrative is a good contrast to its style as it revolves around such themes as psychology, fantasy, madness, betrayal and murder as its creators used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than realism or what was on the surface. Most films that helped categorize German Expressionism include several of Fritz Lang's silent films most importantly Metropolis and M. Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel are also considered landmarks of German Expressionism, with some critics looking at the aesthetics of German Expressionism as the early beginnings of American film-noir.
D.W. Griffith is looked at as one of the most influential silent directors of all time but I personally believe F. W. Murnau to be the greatest of all silent directors. Murnau lived from 1888 to 1931 and had made 22 films. He is known for four masterpieces which don't include Faust. Murnau's technical mastery especially in the way of effects make all of his films exciting to see. Murnau's most popular film was his 1922 horror film Nosferatu which is also looked at by critics and horror fans as one of the greatest horror films of all time. His unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with actor Max Schreck's frightening rodent like portrayal of Dracula is looked at by many as the defining film version of Dracula. Murnau than made a film called The Last Laugh in 1924 about a hotel doorman played by Emil Jannings who is devastated after losing the one job that brings him respect and happiness. That silent film purposely was made to not include any title cards so there was no reading for the audience and so the story was only expressed through visuals.
The worldwide success of Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust won Murnau a Hollywood contract with Fox, and he moved to America in 1926. Sunrise was one of his first films he made in the United States and many claim to be his greatest achievement and one of the greatest silent films of all time. Janet Gaynor won an Oscar playing a woman whose husband is considering murdering her so he can be with another woman. His last film was Tabu in 1931 which was a romance between a young fisherman and a holy maid on the island of Bora Bora Lagoon. Unfortunately Murnau was killed in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway just before its première, and his promising career was cut short at 43. If he had lived, he would have probably made several more masterpieces especially with the creation of sound just being introduced; but sadly we will never know what more he could have accomplished and what could have been.
Murnau's Faust was the most complex and expensive production undertaken by UFA until it was surpassed by Metropolis the following year. Filming took six months and a cost of 2 million marks (only half was recovered at the box office). According to film historians, Faust seriously impacted studio shooting and special effects techniques. Murnau uses two cameras, both filming multiple shots; many scenes were filmed time and again. As an example, a short sequence of the contract being written on parchment in fire took an entire day to film.
There were several versions created of Faust, several of them prepared by Murnau himself. The versions are quite different from one another. Some scenes have variants on pace, others have actors with different costumes and some use different camera angles. For example, a scene with a bear was shot with both a person in costume and an actual bear. In some versions, the bear simply stands there. In one version, it actually strikes an actor. Overall, five versions of Faust are known to exist out of the over thirty copies found across the globe: a German original version (of which the only surviving copy is in the Danish Film Institute), a French version, a late German version which exists in two copies, a bilingual version for Europe prepared by UFA, and a version prepared by Murnau himself for MGM and the US market in July 1926.
The copy of the original German version lacks a number of scenes. With the copies available, a 106-minute reconstructed version has been released by Kino International with English intertitles on DVD. A commentary is also an optional extra on the DVD. The original intertitles have also been recovered.
The US version includes titles and scenes filmed especially by Murnau, where for example the scene in which Aunt Marthe offers Mephisto a drink that he rejects as causing heartburn: in the US version, Mephisto rejects the drink for having had alcohol, a joke aimed at the Prohibition era; again in the US version, Mephisto offers Marta a necklace, from the Great Khan of the Tartars, rather than the cousin from Lombardy, as Murnau believed the US audience would not have heard of Lombardy. One scene was done with a text juxtaposition, as again, Murnau believed the American audience wouldn't grasp the imagery by itself. This is also the only version having the originally conceived finale of the ascension of Faust and Gretchen into Heaven. In all others, the scene is rather more conceptual. Books appearing in the film were labeled or any plans with text were shot twice, in German and in English.
The bilingual version was prepared to be shown aboard trans-Atlantic ships traveling from Hamburg to New York. Therefore, they catered to both American and German audiences.
The French version is generally believed to represent the poorest choice of scenes, both including the largest number of filming errors (e.g., showing assistants holding doors, actors slipping, Gretchen stepping on her dress, show the stage maquette). It does hold takes that do not exist in any other versions, however.
There are fascinating facts that film critic Roger Ebert quoted from the book Murnau, which was written by critic Lotte Eisner. Even though Eisner never met Murnau he talked to several of his collaborators after his untimely death in 1931. Murnau was a bold and creative artist who loved to paint with light and shadow and it is said that on many occasions he would complain to his cameraman Carl Hoffmann that he could see too much in the shot, that much of the picture should be obscured except for the main focus of the scene. Even before the development of deep focus, Murnau was creating shots which were double exposures, framing a detailed crowd of villagers in the background and forground of the same shot.
What was extraordinary about the artists back in the silent era was that several of the camera techniques that were done were being discovered at the time they were shooting them. Assistant Hertth recalled a time where Murnau was filming the opening archangel scene where the director, "was so caught up in the pleasure of doing it that he forgot all about time. The steam had to keep billowing through the beams of light until the archangel Werner Fuetterer was so exhausted he could no longer lift his sword. When Murnau realized what had happened, he shook his head and laughed at himself, then gave everyone a break." Murnau was said to be entranced by the actress Camilla Horn who played Gretchen saying, "Gretchen had to spend hours tied to the stake, with flames leaping round her from 20 lykopodium burners. When she fainted, she was not acting." The legendary actor Emil Jannings who plays Mephisto stood for hours above three powerful fans which blew clouds of soot to make his cloak billow 12 feet above his head. The great director William Dieterle plays Gretchen's brother Valentin, and interestingly enough years later directs a version of the Faust legend titled The Devil and Daniel Webster.
The character's within Faust are pretty basic characters that are defined simply by their motivations and emotions and less by the subtleties of their personalities which is similar to other films of the silent era or characters created strictly from the world of mythology and comic books. Faust is a character who is in anguish over his inability to help others and will eventually be led off the wrong path with the seduction of power and lust, only to have love pull him back on the right path once again. Mephisto is the all-powerful fallen angel who offers Faust anything he desires, including the beautiful Duchess of Parma, but Faust is difficult to satisfy as he rather prefers the pure and innocent Gretchen. Mephisto is crafty and sly in the way he sucks Faust in, as he first offers him a 24-hour trial of god like powers, in which in due time Faust will be willing to sign anything, to win over the love of the innocent Gretchen, (Ironically, Faust will soon forget all about the plague victims which was the original intent of him signing anything in the first place). Unfortunately Gretchen's character is made to set up tragedy, a character who is made to suffer because of Faust's selfishness and lust, only to have Faust redeem himself and save her in the end.
Faust is the legendary German myth about a successful scholar dissatisfied with his life who therefore makes a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Goethe spent 50 years writing the two-volume version of the myth and is highly respected in Germany, and so it shouldn't come as any surprise that many audiences were outraged when Murnau made changes to the story. I agree that the greatest parts of the film is the majestic opening sequence and its bleak and disturbing conclusion, with the middle sequences feeling quite weak in comparison. (Even though I understand that the love story is essential for the rest of the story). The light hearted sub plot where Faust falls in love with Gretchen, and then tries to win her heart while Mephisto destracts Aunt Marthe with his own romantic woes feels like a completely different film compared to the epic first quarter and tragic third quarter of the story. It doesn't make logical sense why a supernatural angel like Mephisto would aquire petty human desires like romance and these added character traits make Mephisto seem more comical and silly and less threatening and frighteining diminishing the films earlier power. The film makes up for it though in it's powerful climax as the archangel informs Mephisto that 'Love' is stronger than all the powers of darkness, and the spirits of Faust and Gretchen rise to the heavens to be joined together in the afterlife. For me the simplicity of the special effects presented in Faust give me much more of a sense of awe and wonder compared to today's world of computer animated effects. The astonishing sequence in which the elderly Faust is magically transformed into a young man is obviously done with the simple trick of the camera, and yet that obvious effect seems to be more magical and enchanting than a smooth morph that can now be done from a computer. It seems to me that todays audiences are shown way too much on the screen, so much in fact that artists seem to forgot in letting the audience fill in the rest of the creative gaps with artistry and imagination. Japanese film director Shinji Aoyama listed Faust as one of the Greatest Films of All Time in 2012 saying, "I always want to remember that movies are made out of the joy of the replica. The fascination of movies is not their realism, but how to enjoy the 'real'. In that sense, I always have Faust in my mind as I face a movie, make a movie, and talk about a movie." F. W. Murnau is one of the most creative and original directors of all time, who unfortunately was taken from us much too early in life. Film critic Roger Ebert stated, "No one else ever made films that looked like his. They are strange and haunted; you reflect that if such satanic dealings were possible, they would probably look very much like this."