Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Movie Review: Faust (1926)

Faust (1926) directed by F. W. Murnau

The Devil (called Mephisto here) inflicts Famine, Pestilence, and War on the earth. God's archangel comes to upbraid him, saying the earth is a beautiful place, most especially for the people who have the free will and do good. Mephisto says that men are easily corrupted and claims he can corrupt the good man Faust. Mephisto says Faust is already greedy, trying to change base metal into gold. They make a bargain--if Mephisto can corrupt Faust, he can have the world.

Faust is an elderly scientist in the medieval mode, open to alchemy as much as chemistry. He works hard for a cure to the plague that is ravaging his home town. He also prays to God that the cure he's invented will be efficacious. Faust gives his concoction to a woman who dies almost immediately. He despairs. He starts burning his books, even a bible. One book is clearly an occult book, since it has a way to summon Mephisto to do one's bidding. It blows open on the fire. Faust sees the spell, tries it out, but immediately regrets it. Faust runs away from the lightening and fireballs that herald Mephisto's arrival. Mephisto is not one to be put off and eventually enters a pact with Faust. Mephisto will be his servant if Faust signs over his soul. Faust agrees, letting Mephisto come up with a cure for the plague. When one plague victim clings to a crucifix, Faust can't approach her, leading the locals to stone him. Mephisto whisks him away, turns him young, and sets him on a life of debauchery. Can true love with hometown girl Gretchen save Faust's soul?

Director Murnau (most famous for Nosferatu, his unauthorized adaptation of Dracula) is in top form with amazing special effects and great performances, especially from Emil Jannings as Mephisto. He's both creepy and comical, morphing to match whoever he's playing against. He's a classical demon (horns and wings) when debating the archangel, a wizen old man when dealing with old man Faust, and a young rake gallivanting around with the youthened Faust. His adeptness at corrupting Faust and others is horrifying and fascinating. The effects are a convincing blend of miniatures, camera tricks, and lighting. For a 1920s silent film, it's astounding.


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