The Deal with the Devil motif is a cultural staple that has endured for centuries. We’ve seen this story play out in multiple ways across multiple mediums such as books, music, paintings and films, of course. The Picture of Dorian Grey, Rosemary’s Baby, Phantom of the Paradise, Bedazzled and even Disney movies like The Little Mermaid have pulled from this motif. It’s so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, we’ve even made claims that people in real life have made deals with the Devil. Like the famous legend of influential blues singer Robert Johnson, who reportedly sold his soul to Old Scratch in exchange for musical talent. The caveat was a premature death at the age of 27.
Why are we still fixated with this trope after almost two millennia of rumors, legends and stories? I think Christopher Marlow’s and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s versions of the Faust legend had something to do with it. It’s a fairy tale with some occasional splotches of nonsensicality. But both of the writers gave the person agreeing to the deal a relatable face, as opposed to older versions of the story, which were mainly excuses to have vulgar fun. It made people think about the consequences of sacrificing your moral integrity in order to gain wealth, power and security. A lesson we still haven’t learned, I’ve noticed. Faust has been adapted multiple times over the years since its inception roughly in the 16th century. But F.W. Murnau’s silent film version stands out, to me, as one of the best adaptations of the story and one of the greatest films of the Golden Age of German Cinema.
Until Metropolis was released the following year, Faust was the most expensive production that Universum Film AG, the production company, had made. It cost about 2 million reichsmarks to make, which translates to around 4 million dollars today. The amount of money the filmmakers put into the film is evident. Though the effects are dated, they still manage to impress with their ingenuity and timelessness. Being an F.W. Murnau production, the film is partially a horror, and the clunkiness of the effects manage to aid in the horror’s efficacy. One of the most recognizable shots of the movie is a giant Mephisto (Emil Jannings) ominously floating over a small village with his giant black wings obscuring the town in shadow as he sends a plague down upon the townspeople. This is an image that Disney would later borrow and homage in the Night on Bald Mountain segment in Fantasia. Disney sure likes their satanic symbolism, don’t they?
Another great scene is when Faust (Gösta Ekman) is being casually pursued by Mephisto, and he does this by teleporting via a disappearing fading effect in one shot, and an appearing effect in the next. If this effect was much more clean and stylized, it would be diminished. There’s something about the imperfection of the effects that make it feel that much creepier. And then there’s the existential horror at play, like when Faust loses all faith in himself and God as his search for a cure for the plague becomes completely hopeless. In a frenzy of frustration and rage, he burns his books. As a bibliophile, this horrifies me.
There are also some effects that look still look great even for our modern standards. There’s a scene where Mephisto and Faust fly across the land on a magic carpet, while an in-depth model of the earth unfolds beneath them. We see trees, waterfalls, rivers, towns, mountains and fields go by in seconds, indicating their supernatural speed. The restoring of Faust’s youth is also a great looking and creative use of filmmaking technology at the time. Mephisto doesn’t just snap his fingers and make Faust young. No, he makes him sleep, covers him in a blanket, fans the flames in his fireplaces with his breath while simultaneously growing in size, becomes immersed in shadow, and his impish features are highlighted when he makes the entire room erupt into flame. Then he pulls the blanket off of Faust, who has essentially been baptized by fire with his old features burned away to reveal a younger visage. That is brilliant filmmaking. Like I said before, the models and effects aren’t the most realistic in the world, but they look distinct and imaginative. Murnau was much more interested in making his films feel uniquely nightmarish rather than realistic. Other films that he made like Nosferatu or The Last Laugh are prime examples of how he infuses surrealism and horror in his sets in order to tell his story. It’s a setting caught between the precipice of darkness and light with buildings, stairways and hallways that are jagged and misshapen. The people look a tad off and it feels like there’s something around the corner rubbing their hands in evil anticipation. In this case, it’s literally the Devil.
As much as I love to gush about this movie, there are a couple hiccups that need to be addressed. Namely, the stale romance between Faust and Gretchen (Camilla Horn), and the one sided rom-com antics between Mephisto and Gretchen’s aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert). Neither of these romantic subplots were well received at the time of the films release, and I can understand why. It does noticeably slow the movie, and it tonally clashes with how the film begins and ends. Faust and Gretchen aren’t the most fascinating couple to watch, and it’s the sort of relationship where the female suffers the consequences of the male’s mistakes. By the time Faust attempts to make it right, which is too little too late, one wonders if Faust even deserves her. But in all fairness, these subplots are essential for setting up the dark climax of the film, and it helps to deliver its final point. Said point will either give you a feeling of bittersweet catharsis, or it will make you retch with its sappiness. It will depend on what kind of person you are, I suppose. I did a little of both on my first watch.
Despite the slightly marred middle and end, Faust is a great movie. It’s one of the finest examples of German silent film, and it goes above and beyond the call of duty to retell this timeworn fable with its weird yet innovative style and its somber yet powerful emotion. The story may be very familiar, but the experience is unlike any other.