Ah, the viscous synergy between the nihilistic angst of German Expressionism and the cozy, period-removed faux-menace of Gothic fiction: two great tastes that seemed inseparable until film noir, and which together have been responsible for inspiring more feet of film, pulpy and not-so-much, than Soviet montage and Italian neo-realism combined. F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) is a vintage tissue sample, a prototypical Ufa launch at the moment of the studio’s world-influential peak, and a grand cataract of cluttery, obtuse, cobwebby, vertiginous Teutonic dreaminess. Not so often conjured up by the period‘s fans as other classics with the same palate (particularly Murnau’s Nosferatu, Leni’s Waxworks, Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Galeen’s The Student of Prague), Faust was an inevitable project for the time, being as traditionally Germanic in its bones as sauerkraut and Oktoberfest, but when it’s remembered today it’s usually because of Murnau, whose flame burned so bright but too briefly, and whose last German film this was before defecting to Hollywood that same year and then planting his flag in every cinephile’s brainpan with Sunrise.
Watch Faust on Fandor.
Almost uniquely amid the filmmakers that reside in the upper pantheon, Murnau’s stature rests almost solely on his visual style. In other words, the classic arc of Nosferatu notwithstanding, the narrative substance of most of his films (and most were written by Ufa fixture Carl Mayer) borders on the trite and the sermonic. Even Sunrise, taken as a fictional text, creaks and lumbers, with its screenplay’s archetypal “song of two humans” tone, and conservative sociosexual politics that border on the neolithic. Murnau, a gay aesthete and self-doubting artist who actually saw plenty of action as a combat pilot in WWI, was always exclusively seduced by the distinctly cinematic, and ironically mired in (and famous due to) a cultural moment that was defined by brooding style but at the same time drunk on old-fashioned taletelling. Murnau was always more in love with the abstract possibilities of movies than with the particular stories he was engaged to film; monsters, tragedies, lovers – all of it paled for him beside the complex sensation of sculpted light and cinematic motion.
Faust entails a forthright battle between God and the Devil, and doesn’t shy away from intertitles howling “LOVE!” by the tale’s inevitably heaven-sent finale. You could, if you looked, find something of the DNA of National Socialism in the preachy, paranoid intertitles of films like Faust, so ready to limn moral judgments and make simplistic declarations about what was good and what was evil. (In America, Cecil B. deMille trucked in the same Christian sensationalism, but with only a profit motive in mind.) In any case, Faust’s credits say it was adapted from Goethe by story-mills Gerhard Hauptman and Hans Kyser, but Murnau’s film bears very little relation to Goethe. True, the tragic romance with Gretchen occupies the film’s second half, but whereas Goethe’s hero merely contracts with Satan because he is in search of ultimate knowledge (which, it is absurdly assumed, will bring perfect happiness), Murnau’s hero (Gosta Ekman) is motivated entirely by his altruistic frustration at not being able to rescue his community from the plague; thus, in an effort to make Faust heroic in a way that smacks very much of contemporary Hollywood, Murnau’s scriptwriters effectively canceled out the tale’s original thematic gist – what bad shit happens when you bargain with Satan for one’s own desires, even if it’s only pure knowledge you want.
Of course, and this is the larger point, no one goes to the German Expressionists for story and narrative sophistication – probably even mid-‘20s audiences skimmed over the hokey pedagogism and dug the looming, looping visual saturation. And Murnau, doped on the discovery of the magical force created by the camera moving in conjunction with action and locale, was the prince of the form, managing, as critic David Thomson as pointed out, to take the studied, decorative dead-end of Expressionism to another level, where it was free to roam and find poetry not merely in set design and shadow, but in the mysterious fluid corridor of vision, in what it finds and what it leaves behind off-screen, in the evoked experience of flight, escape, exploration and dread. Faust’s images are often Goyesque, sometimes Vermeerian, and, truth be told, Murnau is satisfied with his lurid tableaux for the film’s first half, shooting scenes through the shadows cast by billowing black smoke, misting up a crossroads as a preamble to Sunrise’s woods and swamp, and indulging in multiple double-exposures that not only pop Emil Jannings’s Mephisto in and out of “reality,” but transform the in-depth landscape as well.
But then the camera leaves the launch pad, as we knew it would, strafing curlicue model villages with the fervor of a cranked hobbyist, and hunting the oddly cramped-and-over-spacious Ufa streets and alleys like a witness enslaved by a Faust-like curiosity despite the oppressive threat of doom. There are no major set-pieces a la The Last Laugh or Sunrise, just moments of searching and wingedness, but it’s in these chunks of celluloid swooning that Faust becomes authentically Murnovian, which means, in a sense, that they’re bits of movieness experienced like music you watch. It’s folktale, it’s pulp, and it’s anxious pre-Nazi homily, but the film’s also its inimitable maker’s lust for transcendence, which he struggled for wherever he went.
Michael Atkinson is a film critic and author of two critic and author of The Hemingway Mysteries: Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.