This is one of the best films in the German silent cinema, and that’s saying a lot, considering it’s a field full of masterpieces. FW Murnau really pushed the medium of film in a way he never had before, and in many ways, didn’t until his death in the early thirties. Many consider Sunrise to be his best film, while Nosferatu gets all the fame, and both with good reason, but I must admit that my personal favorite has to go to this one.
The story deals with Faust, an old doctor who is trying to save the people in his village from a plague spread by Satan himself. When an Angel stops him, Satan challenges the angel to a bet: corrupt a man enough to denounce God and Satan will rule the Earth. So, he sets on his mission. Faust invokes him as a last desperate chance for help, and he appears in his new name and guise, Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles then tries to corrupt him as much as possible, even turning him into a young and lustful man, but something Mephistopheles didn’t expect happens: Faust falls in love with the young daughter of one of his patients. Mephistopheles decides to take advantage of this situation, and sets in motion the destruction of Faust.
This movie is very bleak, especially after the girl is introduced as a character. Mephistopheles literally does everything horrible imaginable to this woman, but in the end, as both the girl and Faust burn together in love, Mephistopheles loses his bet, as they both join together in love and goodness. The movie has a lot of style, and some amazing set pieces. The most amazing came at the beginning of the film, with the giant Satan looming over the city, spreading the plague with it’s huge wings. The invocation sequence is also pretty amazing, and so is the stuff with Faust and Mephistopheles riding in their flying magic shroud (not carpet). And speaking of Satan, he’s played here with great gusto by Emil Jannings. You could tell Jannings was having a blast with the role, hamming it up and over-acting in the usual Silent ways, but in a way it fits his demonic character. His costume makes him almost like an early drag queen.
So this might sound like a supernatural melodrama to you, I beg you to give it a look. Is one of the most profound, important movies ever made, and if you don’t like the story, check out its filmmaking. Very few films come close.