FW Murnau made the most expensive film in German history with Faust, and it bombed horribly making back only half of its production costs. That is a shame, because this movie is a real joy of German Expressionism. The two main centers of that fun are with the overall production design, which is a real height of the entire film movement, and the performance of Emil Jannings as Mephisto. Having made the wildly successful The Last Laugh, Murnau was given carte blanche with this project, and while I’m saddened that it was a failure upon its initial release, I’m glad that it exists at all.
It’s one of the most well-known German stories. Faust, an elderly good man and alchemist, is tempted by the devil, Mephisto, to turn away from God in the form of a contract signed in blood. Well, that’s the famous part. The rest of the story is less famous. Faust leads a life of debauchery until he meets the nice, pious, and quiet Gretchen, a pretty but poor girl in his small village. Mephisto, frustrated at Faust’s turn towards a good influence, works to corrupt her in a similar way that he corrupted Faust, leading to an out of wedlock pregnancy, ostracism from the community, and the unfortunate death of her child in the middle of a winter snowstorm. With the dead child before her, Gretchen is arrested for the child’s murder. As she is about to be burned at the stake, Faust throws himself to her defense, burning along with her, and Faust loses the bet to God’s angel he had made to begin the film.
Now, the story itself is well presented, though I find it odd that Faust himself disappears for a long section near the end that focuses solely on Gretchen and the portrait of Faust’s descent into debauchery is surprisingly short with little time spent showing how far he’d fallen. Outside of those two concerns, the story is really well presented, and that has everything to do with the aforementioned production design and performance from Emil Jannings.
German Expressionism, a heavy early influence on Alfred Hitchcock, was never meant to look realistic. Born from post-World War I art styles, the intentionally unrealistic designs emphasized emotional truths rather than realistic replication. This meant exaggerated sets and framing compositions that were meant to elicit emotion rather than reflect the real world. So, when, early in the film, Mephisto spreads his wings over Faust’s village (in wonderful miniature), it’s not meant to show that Mephisto literally appeared in giant form over the community but that it’s a symbolic presentation of the idea that the devil was casting his influence over it. When Mephisto’s face looms large over a frame that he’s double exposed into, it doesn’t mean that the people can see him directly, but that he’s influencing events.
This sort of visual storytelling is generally not a cheap thing to accomplish. You can’t just go out and film in a real street. You have to create a set with buildings that have exaggerated angles. You have to make elaborate costumes that are impractical for daily life but look good on film. Murnau had all the money that Ufa, the German production company, could throw at him, and he made sure that every pfenning was visible on screen. This movie just looks fantastic from beginning to end. The moment where Faust flies with Mephisto across Europe to Italy so Faust can steal the most beautiful woman in the world from her new husband is done with a variety of techniques that does its very silent era best to convincingly convey the experience.
Another thing about German Expressionism as a more stylized form of silent cinema is that the larger forms and more elaborate visuals allow for a more natural fit with extravagant performances, and that’s what Emil Jannings delivers as Mephisto. Mischievous, larger than life, and almost endearing, Jannings is fun to watch as the devil. He tempts Faust, Gretchen’s aunt, and then lashes out at everyone by the end with gusto. He embodies Mephisto with charm and an almost prankishness.
Aside from my small issues with the narrative, FW Murnau’s Faust is a fun technical exercise that tells its story with wonderful energy. It really is too bad that it was a failure commercially, but audiences really do seem to have limited patience with unrealistic art forms.