Having watched Nosferatu recently, I’ve developed a bit of a Murnau “thing”, and Faust has done nothing to dampen this. In some ways it’s a similar film – figuratively, Mephisto is not unlike Dracula, and the use of the plague metaphor for societal decay is used in both films. Over 115 minutes Faust is neither even nor coherent enough to be in the same league as Nosferatu, though. The individual set pieces, however, thoroughly outdo anything in Murnau’s Stoker adaptation.
The special effects are rudimentary, but boy do they pack some bang for their buck. The camerawork and heavily shadowed lighting lends a sombre and dreamy air to proceedings, and there are certain images, particularly at the beginning of the picture, which are astounding: Murnau’s representation of the plague and Faust’s invocation of the Devil (it reminded me of the strikingly similar Robert Johnson legend) are especially memorable scenes.
For all that, the middle of the film loses momentum badly. This is mostly not Murnau’s fault: the Faust legend doesn’t, when you analyse it, make for awfully good cinema. The dramatic impetus is done at the end of the first act. Once Faust has made his pact, it’s game over; the rest of the story is just the slow revelation of the enormity of what Faust has done.
Murnau has a go at modifying this to make for a better screenplay, but it doesn’t work. The Faust/Gretchen love interest isn’t enough to hold up the last hour of the film, and bizarrely (given the decidedly unsettling opening scenes) Emil Jannings plays Mephisto not for dread but for laughs. I suppose that’s the only way the Faust story has any credibility – we can believe that a beguiling trickster might pull a fast one on the fundamentally decent Faust, but not a horrible Satanic Majesty. But I don’t think that is an excuse to turn the Devil into Oliver Hardy.
In his attempt to pull a happy ending out of the Hat (Goethe and Marlow don’t have a happy ending, Faust scholars will note), Murnau eschews his slapstick for good old fashioned incoherence: Mephisto and Faust take leave of the screen altogether and Gretchen goes postal, things get very maudlin – to what point, your guess is as good as mine – and, rather abruptly (given how the last 30 minutes dragged) it’s all over.
Just as there is for the new edition of Nosferatu, there is a commentary track prepared by an Australian actor with a comedy baritone voice. It isn’t quite so insightful, however.
Well worth a watch, but you are left wondering what might have been.
Director: F.W. Murnau
Stars: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn
Runtime: 85 min