F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926)

Behold! The portals of darkness are open and the shadows of the dead hunt the Earth. This chilling proclamation sets the stage for F. W. Murnau’s 1926 adaptation of the classic German legend of “Faust”, in which a bet between an angel and demon unleashes chaos upon the mortal realm, testing the moral fortitude of their human playthings.

What could compel someone to sell their soul? And what would make one worthy of redemption, if redemption were attainable? These questions have been explored in countless retellings of “Faust” since the tale’s nascence in the sixteenth century, notably by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. While interpretations vary (earlier treatments ensure Faust’s eternal damnation), the core narrative remains consistent: a scholar makes a pact with the Devil, trading his soul for limitless knowledge, power, or wealth.

In Murnau’s rendition, co-written with Hans Kyser, Faust (played by Gösta Ekman) is portrayed as an alchemist who makes a deal with the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) to save his plague-stricken village. Disillusioned with both God and science, Faust initially seeks out the assistance of dark forces as a last resort, but later succumbs to Mephisto’s temptations. His pursuit of pleasure kicks off with murder and seduction, but not long after, this debauchery is halted by the appearance of Gretchen (Camilla Horn), with whom he falls deeply in love. Gretchen’s tragic fate ultimately serves as the impetus for Faust’s own expiation, made possible by an eternal word that Mephisto has failed to consider — “love”.

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In one striking scene early on in the film, Mephisto towers over Faust’s village and unfurls his black wings to cover the light of the sun. Smoke, representing the plague, pours over the tiny houses. These detailed miniatures, shrouded in hazy shadow and sculpted by chiaroscuro lighting, emphasize the battle between good and evil that rages within the individual and gets literalized through divine conflict. Known for his meticulous preparation process, multiple takes, and innovative studio techniques, Murnau’s use of elaborate sets and special effects allows the narrative of Faust to unfold through carefully crafted images. Not unlike Mephisto’s illusions, Murnau’s cinematic trickery retains its dark allure to this day and continues to cast a spell over audiences that lingers beyond the film’s two-hour runtime.

While Faust is now widely acclaimed as one of Murnau's finest works, considered by some to surpass even his more famous Expressionist film, Nosferatu (1922), it was received poorly by German audiences and critics at the time of its release. Many believed that it did not measure up to its literary predecessors and that Ekman, in contrast with Jannings and Horn, gave a bland performance. In 1927, the film was also conservatively deemed to be unsuitable for minors on moral grounds. At the time, it had been UFA’s (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft) most ambitious and costly production — filmed over a span of six months with a budget of two million Reichsmarks (approximately $7.5 million USD today) — but only recouped half of its production costs.

Several different cuts of Faust were created, of which five are in circulation today. Presented above is the 1999 restoration by Luciano Berriatúa of a German version preferred by Murnau that was not seen until recently. Weaving together nitrate duplicate negatives from original UFA prints, and paired with a piano score by Javier Pérez de Azpeitia, this restoration of the domestic cut hews close to Murnau’s intended vision. For those who prefer an orchestral score, a newer 4k restoration paired with an epic soundtrack by Timothy Brock can also be found here.

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