Okay, readers. I confessed to you yesterday that silent films usually aren’t my thing. TODAY, however, I’m going to make a little amendment to that statement. I find silent dramas pretty hard to sit through in general, but I actually, surprisingly loved this movie.
F.W. Murnau’s Faust is, as you might have guessed via remembrances of your high school English class, an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy play, Doctor Faustus. I’ll be honest: prior to watching this movie, I didn’t remember much about Doctor Faustus. I could recall that it involved a pact with the devil, and that there was a questionable exchange of youth/beauty for knowledge/power, but beyond those abstract concepts I basically left it in Mrs. Howard’s 10th grade classroom, along with The Canterbury Tales and some of the less-engrossing Greek tragedies.
How I wish now that that weren’t the case!
The story is extremely powerful, and before I wax on any further without you having any idea what I’m talking about, here’s a brief synopsis: Faust (Gosta Eckman), the humble, God-fearing alchemist, looks like the flesh-and-blood manifestation of a Michelangelo painting, with his windswept beard in a perpetual state of ethereal astonishment. He has invoked the name of Mephisto in a desperate attempt to save his town from the scourge of plague and sorrow, but once he’s done so he fears the everlasting consequences. Emil Jannings is perfectly cast as the demon Mephisto– it’s impossible not to feel a creepy tingle when those eyes glow out of the darkness at you in the clip below.
I mean, come on! That’s just cool.
I should also mention that Mephisto is particularly invested in the temptation of Faust, because he has made a wager with an archangel that even the most pristine mortal soul can be corrupted. The good doctor Faust is mankind’s greatest treasure–heretofore incorruptible–so the archangel essentially places the fate of humanity in his wrinkled, old hands. Mephisto, however, still lures him to ruin via the promise of eternal youth, beauty, knowledge, and sex, as devils are apt to do. Lots of room for existential musing here. The latter half of the movie is especially interesting to me, because despite the fact that Mephisto and Faust run all over God’s green earth causing problems for everyone, it is mostly Faust’s paramour, Gretchen, who bears the brunt of the consequences. To say any more here would give too much away, but yeah. Suffice it to say, in the immortal words of James Brown: it was a man’s, man’s, man’s world.
On a lighter note, there is a strange and hilarious scene during Faust’s initial courtship of Gretchen where Mephisto, playing the jauntily-feathered wingman, sidles up to Gretchen’s aunt and stiffly honka-honkas her. I am not joking. It’s weird, but it’s legitimately funny, and the film is full of little comedic moments like this that somehow hold up against all logic and expectation.
From start to finish, Faust thoroughly engaged me (despite a 1 hr 55 min run-time, which seems incredible for the ’20s), and the effects and makeup are fantastic. I’d wager that most people associate the name F. W. Murnau with Nosferatu today, but I honestly prefer his interpretation of Faust to the vampire flick. Not to knock Nosferatu, of course, because I think it’s an important film in a myriad of ways, but as far as watchability and enjoyment go…give me Faust any day.
If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend that you check this movie out. It can be found on Netflix DVD, and it is well worth your time (even if only to marvel at how much it sucked to be a woman in literally every century prior to this one).
Next up, I’ll be taking us into horror films of the 1930s with Day 4’s Island of Lost Souls (1932). It promises to be chock-full of crisp, linen suits and furry jungle weirdos…so I’m pretty sure you don’t want to miss it. In the mean time, I’ll leave you to ponder this publicity photo, and Charles Laughton’s crooked, probably glued-on goatee.
Thanks for reading, and for continuing to come back this month as Charles and I journey through the rest of our 31 Days of Horror!!