I only recently watched the remarkable silent film, Faust, directed by F.W. Murnau, and I’m not sure what took me so long to see it considering I really enjoyed his earlier film Nosferatu (1922).
Faust is based on a German legend about a man whose good intentions become his downfall after he bargains with the devil. In Murnau’s poetic masterpiece, I was struck by the outstanding visual images he was able to create with the limited technology of the time. In a most unforgettable scene, the daunting figure of Mephisto (Emil Jannings), wings outstretched, looms over the miniature town planting the seeds of a plague knowing that Faust (Gösta Ekman) will set out to cure the people. The use of contrast between light and shadows, camera angles, imposed images and multiple shots all contribute to the exquisite special effects that were paramount to Murnau’s perfection. Some may find the sets and the imagery to be outdated, but as Roger Ebert wrote, “The world of Faust is never intended to define a physical universe, but is a landscape of nightmares.” While the music featured in this version is not the original score, it’s quite effective if a bit overextended by the end.
I’m a huge history buff, and anytime I watch a movie or read a book that I really enjoy, I have a compulsory urge to dig into the circumstances of what brought that particular piece to fruition and also the background of the creator... maybe I should have been a biographer.
Some interesting highlights from Murnau’s life: Faust was his last German film before heading to America. He went on to direct Sunrise (1927), which the British Film Institute named the seventh-best film in the history of motion pictures in 2002. Murnau did not see the premiere of his last film Tabu (1931); he died the week before in a car accident. Only 11 people attended the funeral, including Greta Garbo, Emil Jannings and Fritz Lang. Garbo requested a deathmask of Murnau be made, which she kept on her desk during her years in Hollywood.
Faust has certainly renewed my interest in the very talented visionary, F.W.Murnau.