Friday, February 17, 2012
F.W. Murnau's Faust was his final German film before the director emigrated to the USA for his all-too-brief career in Hollywood. This grand, extravagant epic, based on Goethe's version of the German legend about a man making a deal with the devil, represented Murnau's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink apotheosis of the German Expressionist silent style. It's a technical marvel, with dazzling effects that must have been utterly cutting edge at the time and today still have tremendous charm and power. This is especially true of the film's opening section, in which the devil makes a wager with an archangel over the soul of Faust (Gösta Ekman), a good man who the devil, in an echo of the Biblical story of Job, promises he can corrupt. Faust is a man of great faith and wisdom, old and wise and well-respected in his community. But he is nevertheless corrupted by the devil's representative Mephisto (Emil Jannings, in a scenery-devouring role), first by appealing to his very best instincts, his desire to help people, then by tempting him with power, then with increasingly base and material temptations.
The film's opening section provides Murnau with the opportunity to unleash a barrage of visual effects, showing the devil towering over a scale-model town, stretching his black wings to blot out the sun, kicking up clouds of dust that spread the plague. Sinister skeletal riders soar through the sky, and the devil's face appears floating in the clouds, taunting the people of the town. Faust, faced with this plague, appeals to both science and God, but both fail him; he can do nothing to cure the disease, and in a fit of desperation, after burning both his religious and his scholarly books, he decides to summon a demonic force to his aid instead. He goes to the crossroads, that mythic site of hellish bargaining, and as he conducts the ritual, Murnau draws a glowing ring of fire around him, fiery circles hovering hazily in the air around Faust, as the demon Mephisto magically materializes by his side.
Mephisto appears first as a ratty, stooped beggar with sinisterly glowing eyes, haunting the terrified Faust, who already regrets summoning this creepy creature, and later as a courtly, vampiric figure in black robes and a jaunty cap with a feather sticking out of it. In either guise, he's a mischievous trickster guiding Faust into the bargain that will doom him. Faust believes at first that he's only doing this to help people, but he's soon seduced by sensual and sexual pleasures, by the lure of power and greed and lust. The film calms down a little stylistically after this initial flurry of baroque visual overload, and when Mephisto transforms Faust into a young man — in order to pursue first a libertine duchess (Hanna Ralph) and then the virginal young Gretchen (Camilla Horn) — the film settles down into a much more understated melodrama, albeit one that takes place amidst the deformed architecture and spiky shadows of the elaborately designed sets.
Faust's romance with Gretchen is what ultimately saves him — the film ends with an angel defeating the devil, citing the power of love, liebe, and the word appears surrounded with a glistening halo of light — but Murnau is somewhat irreverent in his depiction of this tragic romance. Part of it is that Jannings' Mephisto is just so much more appealing and fun to watch than the smooth-faced, feminine young Faust, who's very much cast in the mold of the usual bland silent-era heroes despite his deal with the devil.
Mephisto is the choice part here — although Gretchen's leering giant of a brother (William Dieterle) somewhat unintentionally gives Mephisto a run for his money as the creepiest character in the film. Mephisto is an incarnation of the devil as an avatar of fun, dancing around in the shadows making mischief, mugging wildly for the camera in his agony at the sight of a cross, stalking around with his rapier sticking out the back of his robes like a stiff tail. The film, despite its ultimate message of love and spiritual uplift, has some pretty perverse and provocative ideas about good and evil, confirming the impression that the latter have all the fun.
In one early scene, the plague inspires an apocalyptic preacher who urges the people to repent and pray, the cross he holds looming large within the frame. But this somber, morbid religious assembly is interrupted by a parade of revelers who take the opposite approach, laughing at death and celebrating feverishly since life is so short. There's no question which approach Murnau makes seem more appealing, as the partying villagers briefly stop beneath the preacher, the camera angled down to leer at the women with their cleavage spilling out of their tops, laughing and drinking, their sensuality splayed out beneath the preacher with his cross. To cap off this scene, the devil strikes down the preacher, suggesting that goodness and piety are no guarantees in a world where Hell has as much influence as Heaven.
Mephisto is the most visible embodiment of this sensibility. Jannings, an actor who knew very well how to play big without sacrificing subtlety, rips into the part but never comes across as hammy, instead just communicating this sinister devil's delight in his evil deeds, his pop-eyed intensity and insanity. His best showcase is Mephisto's playful flirtation with Gretchen's matronly alchemist aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert), which serves as a parodic counterpoint to the love scenes between Gretchen and Faust. Gretchen plays the "he loves me, he loves me not" game with a flower she picks, and Mephisto repeats the gesture with eye-rolling mockery using a mushroom, sticking shards of it in his mouth as he pulls them off the crown.
Murnau cuts back and forth between these two romances throughout this scene, employing the comic, ribald interplay of the demon and the alchemist as a tonic for the conventionally romantic pursuit of Gretchen by Faust. Mephisto is both randier than the human — putting a necklace on the old woman, he cups her breasts in his hands, then recoils as though disappointed in what he'd felt — and much funnier, as he responds to his paramour's attempts to kiss him by pushing her cap over her face and running away. The whole sequence ends, not with Faust proposing to Gretchen, but with Marthe lovingly taking a piece of mushroom and stuffing it into her shirt as a souvenir, while Mephisto, fleeing the scene, turns back towards the camera, and spits out a mouthful of chewed-up mushroom bits, blowing a raspberry at all this romance and sentimentality.
Though Jannings is the film's most powerful presence and easily steals every scene he's in, Murnau masterfully shifts the film's focus and its sympathies to Gretchen for the increasingly poignant final act, in which the young girl suffers greatly for her involvement with the corrupt Faust. Horn delivers a sweet, pure performance, radiating light and decency, and Murnau draws visual parallels between the girl and both the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc in the film's final stretch. The image of Gretchen in the snow, a shawl wrapped around her head, the tears on her cheeks frozen into delicate white crystalline patterns, is breathtaking and heartbreaking, a tragically beautiful evocation of the Virgin with child. The film, like many of the Faust legends upon which it's based, Goethe's included, pulls back from the darkness at the very last second. But this momentary redemption, as affecting as it is, is in many ways overpowered by Murnau's far more vivid presentation of suffering, corruption, shadow and fog, and the sheer grinning, mischievous fun that is the evil in the world.