[This is my second entry in my Blind Spots series]
Modeled chiefly on the first part of Goethe's interpretation of the story, Faust is a film of grandiose darkness. It begins with superimposed images of the four horsemen riding in the clouds, their skeletal figures frozen in grim war poses. Smoke appears in these first shots, as it does in most of the subsequent ones; at times it seems as if hellfire is about to set light to the projector itself. But nothing compares to the sight of Mephisto himself (Emil Jannings), a giant demon revealed in the light of an evil-banishing Archangel. Looking like a mountain with a face, Mephisto is imposing and terrifying even from the torso-up.
Enraged by this purifying light, Mephisto makes a bet with the Archangel. He looks down on a nearby village and shows the angel an aged, wise scholar named Faust (Gösta Ekman). With his flowing beard and philosopher appearance, Faust looks like a Greek, but his Christian faith comes out in the intertitles of his speech. He looks like a paragon of religious scholarship, until Mephisto reveals the man's double life as an alchemist, toiling away in a lab and looking more like Rothwang than Socrates. To further prove his point re: the greed and desire of even the noblest souls, Mephisto bets the Angel that he can win Faust's soul. If he succeeds, the devil shall have dominion of the Earth.
What follows are some of the most incredible sights in Murnau's canon. Using a model village, Murnau makes Jannings look positively gargantuan in long shot, his already large features exploded beyond all reason. Clearly the inspiration for the best sequence of Fantasia, the scene of Mephisto stretching his wings out over the village, blocking out the sun and issuing a billowing fog of Black Death, is masterful in its sinister power. It's the largest, most bombastic moment of the film, and it happens early. But when the demon shrinks down to tempt Faust with the power to cure this plague, it's to Murnau's (and Jannings') credit that the movie feels no less large and operatic.
Jannings clearly relished the role of Mephisto, the slow stretching out of his arms later replaced by quicker, more taunting body language when he meets Faust face to face. I've been fascinated by Jannings since familiarizing myself with some of his work. Of the few performances of his I've seen, I see Jannings as always playing not merely a character but some facet of Germany itself. In The Last Laugh, he is the nation's wounded pride, stripped of title and honor in the wake of WWI. In The Blue Angel, he is the nation corrupted by the seedy underbelly of Weimar life. Faust casts him as that corrupting influence, and Jannings plays it up with leering grins and suggestive movements. His portly frame does not preclude his seductive power over all; if Jannings could sing, he'd have made the greatest Don Giovanni of them all. The camera doesn't move that often in Faust, but Jannings is so vibrant and enticing that he makes his frames come alive.
Likewise, Murnau also composes shots that spice up static frames with varied mise-en-scène. In one shot, Faust is brought by a young girl to try to save her plague-ridden mother, who lies motionless in the foreground as the scene changes behind her. The shot holds long enough to create an almost composite effect, the movement of the figures behind the static body nearly resembling a special effect than a simple setup. Of course, actual superimpositions litter the film, with faces alternately mocking or luring characters. The technical detail of Faust is stunning, as is the level of intimacy the film maintains the further it sinks into Faust's corrupting deal with his demon and the slowly constricting ties that bind him.
In fact, despite the disparate subject matter, Faust can be clearly traced to Murnau's subsequent Hollywood feature, Sunrise. Though Faust contains an innate epic quality, Murnau constantly grounds the action with the static shots and the rescaling of Mephisto to human proportions. The two films even share a basic sense of inner conflict, chiefly the simplified juxtaposition of good and evil in romantic terms. The true test of Faust's goodness has nothing to do with his spiritual allegiance but his devotion to Gretchen, the innocent village girl who lures him away from his demonic bacchanal with her pure sweetness.
Amusingly, religion doesn't come out well at all in Faust. As Mephisto's plague rips through the scholar's village, priests and monks appear looking as frenzied and nightmarish as the demon himself. They brandish crosses like swords, damning the dead as wicked simply for having been allowed to expire by the Lord. And when Faust, having freshly sold his soul for the power to save the townsfolk, flinches before a cross, the people he damned himself to save turn on him before he can help a single person. Later, Mephisto, seeking to claim Faust entirely, frames the man for the murder of Gretchen's brother, and Gretchen finds herself ostracized by all. Pregnant with Faust's child, the poor girl finds herself cast out into the wildness by the moralizing authorities, then tried as a murderess when her newborn dies out in the cold. Murnau, a closeted homosexual, must have lost no love for the strict, callous dogma of organized religion. Even so, the flagrant moral equation of the clergy with Mephisto's own devious plotting is shocking for its forthrightness.
The lascivious tone of the film also marks it as being ahead of its time. Given his youth again, Faust's rejuvenated loins are stirred by a vision of a topless woman. Later, as Faust attempts to woo Gretchen, Mephisto intercepts the girl's aunt and seduces her away from monitoring her niece. At one point, the demon even feels up the old woman. The sexualized tone of these moments modernizes the film to fit in the more decadent tenor of Weimar Germany, yet it also seems a more frank and honest depiction of how the centuries-old myth might really have played out.
In effect, such touches make Faust timeless, though sometimes it seems as if all of Murnau's films are divorced from time despite being silents. Equally dark and optimistic, Faust is a glorious farewell to Murnau's homeland, its finale of purifying fire communicating despair and ecstasy in equal amounts. As the magnificent intertitle of the Archangel explains, the final act of salvation is love, nothing more or less. But what the angel himself doesn't seem to realize is that he is therefore useless, and it says something that the light of heaven would soon pale in comparison to the simple act of the sun rising at the end of Murnau's next film. There, love really is all-powerful, unburdened by the chains of European history and God. Perhaps it was the open-ended promise of new beginnings in America that would take Murnau to his fullest expression. That a film this vast should not be his ultimate statement is demonstrative proof of Murnau's almost limitless power.