This being the first of two new reviews of 1926 films for the National Cinemas month on German Cinema (replacing a much longer essay I had planned to finish the month off with, but since it has been many months since September now I decided to formally use that essay for another purpose and not align it with the National Cinemas project, which I can now put to rest).
Eighty-nine years later, I don’t suspect that anyone really needs to let you know how gorgeous Faust is – it’s a German fable-horror film from the 1920s directed by FW Murnau – it’s gorgeous because of course it is. Sometimes, however, a film reviewer likes to state the obvious. Faust didn’t revolutionize film like Murnau’s previous Nosferatu or The Last Laugh or his latter Sunrise (all released in a snugly period of seven years; am I the only one who misses when filmmakers actually did stuff like make films without taking five or six years off in between projects?). But “it didn’t revolutionize film” is not exactly a fair argument against a film, or else we’d pretty much just be talking about the 1920s and Citizen Kane from now on.
And yes, low and behold, Faust is absolutely one of the greatest looking films ever made, childlike and wondrous like the 1920 film Der Golem and edgy and satanic like Nosferatu yet still own holistic, monstrous beast all its own. It’s not quite a horror film in the traditional sense; it doesn’t have that sickly hue that helps make so many early silent films seem like an alien artifact we can never hope to understand or process, deriving fear from their sheer inscrutability and dangerous sense of detachment from the real world. Instead, Faust’s visuals are brash, glorious, and unhinged in a starry-eyed, storybook sense, matched in their chiaroscuro contrast by their steamy sense of size and towering, omnipresent myth-making. Many of the visuals just seem ready to bounce off the page like a pop-up book from hell (not for nothing did Disney’s Fantasia steal its most famous creation of Chernabog almost wholesale from Faust, surrounding it with stop-start imps straight out of the classic silent pagan-horror Haxan).
The gloriously wide-screen shot of a monumental, monomaniacal Devil covering a piercing white city like a hole of blackness ready to make play with color as it chooses is just about the perfect visual summation of the classical, mythical air of the Faust legend, the sort of story built up on oily, self-invigorating wordage passed down from generation to generation. Of course, if you were really going to bestow the Faust legend with its due process, a good storyteller would leave half of the tale to visual suggestion, selling the characters and the mood with a heightened facial expression, a ghastly flair of the eye, or a twitchy, stuttered, abnormal foot pacing or physical movement. Telling is in showing, and Murnau’s Faust is the first adaptation of the material that captures this elusive visual aspect of the classically theatrical German form of horror-myth storytelling, the moralistic sort that rolls in on the winds of childhood fear and has its way with you and burrows into your soul with prime visual potency that can imply more with a simple stagnant frame, or a stuttery hand movement, than pages of text could possibly fill in. Murnau’s Faust fills in the gaps on the page with the bluster and fantastique of an excitable bard.
Unfortunately, Faust doesn’t always make it so easy for itself. When Faust is on – when Faust (Gosta Ekman) himself, an elderly alchemist, is taunted by the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) who wishes to tempt the soul of a righteous man to win a bet – it is way on, up there with the greatest films from its decade, its home nation, its theme, its style, and its director. There’s a distinct sense, however, that it would have worked more fully at Nosferatu’s own stately 90 minutes, or at an even more reduced length more common among early ’20s silent horror. At around two hours, Faust doesn’t have the visual ingenuity to keep itself running at full steam, eventually dropping into more earthly, mundane storytelling levels not at all Murnau’s forte. Once Faust makes his Devil’s pact and is given his youth again, things grow a tad day-to-day as he pursues a romance that is only interesting by virtue of its naughtier, more wicked undertones relative to many silent cinema romances (a comic secondary romance is an even further fall).
Murnau just isn’t at his peak when he’s on the ground (at least in this film; his 1924 The Last Laugh, also with the incomparable Emil Jannings, tells differently). This is a man who dealt in the otherworldly regions of the mind filtered through the finest stagecraft ever essayed on film (Godard, in his defense of Nicholas Ray, referred to Murnau as the most perfect encapsulation of cinema as poetry, but this is as much theater and sketch-work). His opening gambit, damn near the first half of the film, is not merely brilliant cinema; it is transformative storytelling and world-building, essaying a quaint German village out of classical myth and bulleting it into the future without ever losing the myth’s essential arcane qualities. This is the sort of film location, so completely essayed yet still mysterious and lost to time, where myths happen, the type of location we believe the Devil would hold spontaneous control over lest the forces of goodness best him. It is the sort of place where shadows hold their breaths in silence, allowing no clutter from the impenetrable thoughts of mortality allowed to unspool on in unending fashion across and beyond the frame. This is the sort of effervescent, subfuscous visual storytelling that is the perfect bridge between Nosferatu’s disturbed potency and Sunrise’s gentle musing and wandering gloom, the sort of film for which “tone” is a tightrope act of pure discovery and exploration. Murnau is the sort of off-hand master who could casually recreate the art in his sleep, but it’s a testament to his ability that he tried as hard as he did every single time he went to the camera.
Faust is the sort of legend long applied to artists in their quest for greatness; the film Shadow of the Vampire applies the same legend to Murnau himself, positing that he found success as a director only in conniving murder, that he truly made a bargain with the devil to ascertain power over life and death. Regardless of the truth merit in the literal sense, Murnau held a certain transfixing power over life and death on screen more than maybe any director of his time, or any director since. He could create life in an instant, as he does here, and then test it with the hounds of Hell, with prismatic interpretations of Death itself in all its tempestuous forms. He was a director whose films all centered life and death in whatever form fancied him at the moment, but they were always elemental; he enjoyed pitting life and death against one another in a brutal brawl, training his camera on the two with the controlling vise grip of a director, and seeing what came out the other side. Whatever dark depths brought Murnau to such potent reflections on life and death, and whether or not Faust was in fact a sort of self-myth for him, we should be forever thankful that this man picked up a movie camera. Without that happenstance, life and death would never be the same.