During the Bram Stoker Festival in Dublin, we went to the Pepper Canister Church for a screening of Faust. It’s a film you always hear about, one you always intend to watch, but also one you never get around to see. On that night, we had no reason to miss it.
It was a strange experience watching a silent movie with modern score (created by Shampain). Electronic music blared out as the movie opened. At first it was anachronistic, leaving me with a feeling that it didn’t suit the movie. But as the movie went on and the score moved to match the tone, it started to make sense. By the end of the film I truly felt I had been sucked into the world of Faust.
Faust, the man who sold his soul to the Devil. The movie opens with a battle between the Archangel and Mephisto. The demonic Adversary claims that the Earth will fall to him, and the Archangel disagrees using his sword. They make a deal, that if Mephisto can claim the soul of Faust, the Lord will give up the earth to him.
Mephisto casts a shadow over the hometown of Faust, blocking out the Sun and starting a plague among the people there. This opening shot is stunning, even by today’s standards. We see Mephisto standing over the town, slowly extending his wings. What makes it more impressive is that these are special effects created in the 1920s.
F. W. Murnau, the film’s director, had an eye for perspective. He knows exactly how to frame each shot, creating stunning imagery that, in my opinion, still stands out today. We are more used to seeing the unreal these days with modern visual effects, but at the time this scene must have been terrifying.
The people beg Faust for help, but his alchemy doesn’t work. He becomes so disillusioned that he loses his faith and burns his bible and religious texts. He happens upon a passage telling him how to gain the ultimate power by summoning the Devil. He follows the instructions and Mephisto appears to him.
Mephisto then tempts the old man Faust with the power to help the plague victims. He is hesitant at first, but in his desperation he agrees to a single day so he can heal the sick and dying. All is good at first, until it is discovered he can no longer look upon the cross, and the town shuns him and his power.
He tries to kill himself, but Mephisto doesn’t allow him to escape the deal so easily. One full day, he says. Mephisto then tempts Faust with his youth, riches, and the most beautiful woman in the world. Faust agrees, and Mephisto takes his soul and becomes his servant.
Faust eventually becomes bored and demands Mephisto return him to his home town. He then falls in love with Gretchen, a woman he sees going to church, and asks the Mephisto to make her his. Mephisto suggests that he knows looser women for him, but Faust insists he wants Gretchen.
What follows is a sequence reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch, where Faust gives chase to the non-receptive Gretchen, and Mephisto is chased by a witch that falls in love with him. Eventually Mephisto escapes, and Faust wins his love, taking her to her bed.
Mephisto wakes Gretchen’s mother, who walks in on their romantic encounter and dies of shock. He then tells Gretchen’s brother that Gretchen is no longer pure, and the brother runs up to challenge Faust. They fight, and Mephisto kills the brother. He convinces Faust to flee, since he will be blamed for the murder.
Then Gretchen goes through Hell. She is held responsible for her brother’s death, and is humiliated in the stocks for it. In the winter she is homeless, and gives birth to a child. She begs people to take her child, but they refuse her since she is a sinner. The baby dies in the cold, and when the guard find them, they accuse Gretchen of murdering her own child.
When Faust finds out that Gretchen has been punished to burn at the stake, he demands Mephisto take him to her. Mephisto says she cannot be saved, but they go anyway. They get there just as Gretcehn is being tied to the stake. Before Faust can save her, Mephisto takes away his youth. They set her aflame, and Faust, once again an old man, leaps on to the fire and burns to death with her.
In Gretchen’s final moment of life she sees Faust as his young self, and they both rise to Heaven.
Mephisto returns to the Archangel, and demands the Earth since Faust has fallen. But the Archangel counters that Faust was not lost to Mephisto, since in the end he succumbed to Love which defeats Evil every time. The Archangel then plunges his sword into Mephisto, sending it back from whence it came.
This is the first time I’ve ever watched a silent film that wasn’t a comedy. When you have no sound, you really have to focus on the visuals to tell a story. There are speech boxes throughout the movie when some people talk, but overall the story is told through the movements of the characters.
This is why the visuals are so important. And some of the images in this movie are fantastic. Black and white allows you to highlight details in a bold and striking way, and the film makers take full advantage of that here. The Archangel and Mephisto are particularly striking, the angel being a glowing white entity whereas the demon is shrouded in darkness. And we see this between Faust and Mephisto’s human form. Faust is young, handsome, and wears mostly pale clothes; whereas Mephisto’s features are exaggerated, almost inhuman, and his clothes a deep black.
The special effects stood out to me as well. There were one or two effects that don’t quite hold up, but the film leaves you wondering how they did it a few times. The effects work within the medium it’s presented and are definitely impressive for its time.
The story at it’s core is fairly simple. A battle for a human soul between God and the Devil. It’s a tale older than the Bible, and is presented well here. Within that story, we have the romance. While it is meant to be a tragic tale, it’s feels even more tragic watching it today. Faust’s advances are very forceful, by today’s standards, and it feels like Gretchen doesn’t really choose to bed Faust.
This makes the ending fall a bit flat, since the Archangel claims that Love has defeated Mephisto’s Evil, yet it comes across more as a Lust that destroyed a woman’s life. It’s a flaw, but it is what it is: a product of its time.
This doesn’t ruin the film for me, but even if it did, you can’t deny that this is a fantastically put together film, and feels way ahead of its time, even today. It’s truly one of the greatest examples of a German Expressionist film.