Released 14 October 1926 in Germany, and 5 December in the U.S., F.W. Murnau’s Faust is an absolute classic of German Expressionist cinema, German silent cinema, silent film, German film, and film overall.
Faust (legendary Swedish actor Gösta Ekman) is a venerable scholar who believes the most wonderful thing in creation is our ability to choose between good and evil. As the film opens, he’s the subject of a bet between Mephisto (i.e., the Devil, played by Emil Jannings) and an archangel.
Mephisto claims Faust is as rotten as anyone else, by preaching good while doing evil (alchemy). He offers a wager to wrest Faust’s soul away from God. The archangel says if Mephisto can destroy the Divine spark in Faust, the Earth will be his. Mephisto gloats that no one can resist evil.
Mephisto descends, bringing the Plague. Within a few days, half the town is dying. Faust, desperate to find a cure, spends all his time praying.
A young lady takes him to her dying mother, but Faust’s potion fails to save her. In despair, he throws his vial onto the floor, and it shatters.
Faust is so overcome by helplessness, he throws all his books into a fire. As they’re burning, a book about the dark arts flutters open. Intrigued, Faust takes note of the instructions for calling up the Lord of Darkness to come to one’s aid and give one all the world’s might and glory.
He grabs it from the fire and continues reading.
Faust freaks out when Mephisto actually appears, and he runs home. Mephisto, one step ahead of him, is already waiting there, and offers Faust a contract:
“I renounce God and the heavenly legion, and so shall be mine the power and glory of the world.”
Faust orders him to get away, but the Plague compels him to wish for the power to help for one day only. Mephisto immediately jumps on this, and offers Faust a one-day trial.
Faust waffles a bit, but is convinced when Mephisto says he’ll be able to help the hungry and sick. Whatever Faust wishes, Mephisto will perform. Faust will be the master, and Mephisto the servant.
Mephisto makes Faust sign with his own blood, saying a blood signature is more binding. After Faust makes sure it’s only one day, he finally signs.
The locals come to Faust, begging for his help. He successfully heals the first patient, but the second patient is holding a crucifix, which he’s unable to look upon or get his hands past. The people realize he’s in league with the Devil, and begin stoning him.
Faust flees home, and tries to end it by drinking poison. Mephisto stops him, reminding him the trial day isn’t over yet. Faust fires back that Death makes everyone free, but before he can drink, Mephisto gives him a tempting image of his youth.
Another battle of the wills ensues, before Faust finally begs for youth.
Not only is Faust transformed back to youth, but Mephisto also assumes a more youthful appearance.
Mephisto shows him an apparition of a pretty woman, and Faust demands to be taken to her. They set off an a spectacular journey over the world, on Mephisto’s flying cloak. They arrive at the wedding of the Duchess of Parma, Italy’s most beautiful woman, and make a lot of trouble by the reception.
Faust is getting it on with the bride when Mephisto alerts him to the fact that the sand in the hourglass has run out, and with it the trial day. The image of his returning old age terrifies Faust, and he demands to keep his youth. Mephisto agrees, and says their pact stands for eternity.
Some time later, Mephisto comments that nothing seems to satisfy Faust, no matter how many hedonistic pleasures he partakes of. Whatever Faust wishes, he must grant.
Faust most wants to go home.
They arrive on Easter, and Faust almost immediately falls in instalove with Gretchen (Camilla Horn). Mephisto doesn’t think this kind of innocent maiden is his type, and offers to introduce him to some more obliging wenches.
Faust is adamant Gretchen is the only one for him, and keeps pursuing her until finally she gives in and goes from resisting his advances to being in love herself. This part of the storyline really unsettles me, particularly since too many people still believe “No really means yes!”
While Faust pursues Gretchen with Mephisto’s reluctant help, Mephisto flirts with Gretchen’s aunt Marthe. Some critics feel these scenes are unnecessary, and that it’s out of character for Mephisto to ham it up.
Also out of character is one of the intertitles which was originally altered for the U.S. release. When Marthe offers Mephisto alcohol, he claims he doesn’t drink. Can anyone really imagine the Devil as a teetotaler? In the German original, he says his stomach is too weak for such a fiery drink.
The plot thickens when Gretchen’s brother Valentin comes home.
Though Mephisto is Faust’s servant, he causes a lot of trouble with devastating consequences. It all starts when Faust is discovered in Gretchen’s bed. From that point on, things only get worse and worse, particularly for poor Gretchen.
Though there’s still a sexual double standard, and while I feel the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction, seeing old films like this makes me so, so, so glad women who have sex and children outside of marriage are no longer treated like pariahs and condemned as whores, while men suffer no consequences.
The last half-hour is full of drama and emotion. It all leads up to three final, unforgettable intertitles:
The Word that rings joyfully throughout the Universe,
The Word that appeases every pain and grief,
The Word that expiates all human guilt,
The Eternal Word…dost thou not know it?
Tell me the word!