With his last film that he made in Germany, F. W. MURNAU accomplished to create a stunning visual spectacle, millions of people regard as a masterpiece. It was the most expensive UFA production to that date, and not long after the film premiere Murnau vanished to America. This is one of the highly known adaptations of Goethe’s FAUST. He changed many things while making the screenplay, so that he deliver a more accessible motion picture that everyone can enjoy.
When we meet FAUST (Gösta Ekman) for the first time he is giving a lecture to his students. He seems very wise and he is already an older man with a big white beard resembling Leonardo DaVinci, who was an inventor, artist and alchemist. We find out Faust also practices Alchemy.
‘Er lehrt das Gute und er treibt das Boese!’
The Archangel and the Devil choose him as a wager for the bet. He believes in his books and in his knowledge, but when he fails to find a cure for the plague, he burns all his books and looses everything he believes in. In the most desperate moment he sees a passage in the burning book that there is an option to safe the villagers, but it includes a pact with the Devil.
‘Ein Schelm wie Alle!’
Faust is a very weak and selfish character:
1. Sin 1. Eager to help the town folk, he grew desperate and takes the chance to make a deal with the Devil.
2. Sin 2. After the town folk finds out he made a pact with the Devil he wants to kill himself, which is a sin in Christian Religion.
3. Sin 3. Mephisto talks him into making a wish to be young again. Now, that the village folk don’t matter anymore, he demands to be young again.
4. Sin 4. Mephisto offers the ‘Herzogin von Parma’ to Faust, who already has a husband, but that doesn’t concern him. Faust turns the ‘Herzogin’ into a cheater.
5. Sin 5. Being young and having all the women eventually bores Faust, he decides to find a new interest.
6. Sin 6. He demands Gretchen, who looks much younger than Faust and which Mephisto doesn’t approve. The hard-headed Faust forces Mephisto to get him the girl.
7. Sin 7. He manipulates Gretchen into loving him.
8. Sin 8. After the murder of Gretchen’s brother (Mephisto killed him), Faust just leaves the village and he doesn’t look back. Gretchen is going through hell because of him, but Faust is in his own world.
9. Sin 9. The villagers want to burn Gretchen on a stake and Faust appears, now old again, and seeks her forgiveness. Faust offers her his soul that he doesn’t own. It is too late or that.
10. Sin 10. Faust thinks that the only thing he did wrong about his whole journey is that he wished to be young again, so he cursed his youth. He is completely ignorant about all the other sins.
What good did Faust do during the entire movie? Besides teaching (what might be his job) and trying to find a cure (what villagers demand)… nothing really.
The first thing that comes up in Faust’s mind, when given the opportunity to heal his village folk, was ‘Macht’ (Power) and people’s hands that praise the miracle that Faust accomplished. Under the motif of helping people he actually seeks recognition and some kind of control. And because of his greedy nature he doesn’t have any friends or loved ones. The villagers communicate with him out of necessity, only when they need something.
He hardly ever stands up for himself (taking responsibility for the murder of Gretchen’s brother) and he isn’t capable to decide for himself (Mephisto is dragging him around and telling him what to do). When he failed to create a cure, he just gives up. Mephisto had a very easy task in persuading him. He’s weak character comes to a tragic end, when he runs to Gretchen and asks for her forgiveness by sacrificing himself to the flames. But in this context he didn’t really sacrifice himself; he committed suicide, so he can prove to Gretchen that he is aware of the mistake he made. If Faust is supposed to be the character audiences identify with, then MURNAU wasn’t successful.
His appearance changes over the course of the movie. Firstly, he is in his main ‘form’ as the Devil that places a bet with the Archangel. Afterwards, he disguises himself to like a tramp and lastly he changes into a vampire-like figure, with pointy hair and a big collar. But it doesn’t matter how many times he changes, how many forms he adopts; he always seems weird enough so that the audience can tell that he’s evil.
‘Mein ist die Erde!!’
MEPHISTO (Emil Jannings) behaves exactly like audiences expect from the evil creature. He lies, he manipulates, he stabs someone in the back and he doesn’t care about agreements. Many times he bends the ‘rules’. In the scene right after the bet, he brought the plague to the village so he could test Faust’s beliefs. When he murdered Gretchen’s brother, he is the one who alarmed the village that there’s been a murder, so the folk can prosecute Gretchen. His motivation may seem like he is Faust’s servant, but in reality he can’t care less. Mephisto’s main goal is to have fun and watch people suffer. As the story unfolds, the character of Mephisto begins to be a parody of himself. His scenes are including slapstick comedy (in the vein of Charlie Chaplin) and because it is in opposition to the theme of the film, the whole film takes on a different mood. From the serious villain, he goes on to become the comic relief.
THE VILLAGE FOLK
As important as the main characters, is the village folk. In the beginning it’s them who suffer, but when they show their true face, they become the villains. In the midst of the plague, it’s Faust who made a deal to help everyone, but the folk didn’t accept his help, they stoned him.
The same happened to Gretchen, when her family died, no one cared. They let her to her own devises and in the end burned her at the stake. The folk is a very conservative crowd, who accepts only black and white explanations and they are very Christian oriented. Only the main characters behave like they’re inside a grey zone. They walk on the edge, because they have an excuse for their behaving. Faust made a deal with the Devil in the name of the folk and Gretchen’s life fell apart, only because the folk didn’t ask any questions, they instantly judged her.
A very important aspect of the folk’s character is shown when all hope is gone and the plague takes over as many lives as it can get. Many of the people start to celebrate, so they can enjoy the last hours of being alive. In the agony and fear of disappearing from the face of the earth, the only thing the folk can do is fall into deep hedonism. No wonder Faust did the same, when he glanced at the plate full of poison. He demanded to be young again in the moment he realised he is going to die. Hedonism is escape, not confrontation. The folk has no true believers, they believe for opportunistic reasons. When they pass judgement on Faust, or even on innocent Gretchen, they are not sorry for even a moment. No, they enjoy it.
GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM AND SYMBOLISM
An artistic movement happened in the 20s of the last century. This movement was born in Germany by the name of Expressionism. It juxtaposes the characters emotions through costumes and set design.
The ARCHITECTURE of the village is a great example of introvert emotions shown in an extrovert manner. Beyond the asymmetrical streets, which reflect the folk’s inability to control their lives, they also show the characters soul through the colour of their clothes. The good have mostly bright, white clothes, where the evil have dark, black clothes.
The COLOUR changes depending on the characters decisions and their position within the story. Gretchen is innocent, therefore she wears white, but Faust gradually fades from white to black.
In that regard, the same applies to the Archangel and the Devil. They occupy the screen for a short time, a few minutes at the beginning of the movie and a very short time at the end. But since there is a bet going on, they have to be present everywhere and all the time to decide who won.
MURNAU was very creative in that field, because every frame contains a distinctive white aura and a black empty space, thus representing the Archangel and the Devil as ‘all present’ through an elaborate light schema.
How black (the Devil) and white (the Archangel) represent opposites, there is a good possibility that other OPPOSITES might be involved. Like the sights of the crowded happy villagers, to the sights of empty and wasted streets. The opposites, like the old and the young,also make an appearance in Faust. Gretchen’s behaves differently when she is with her family as opposed to her character without her loved ones. The symbolism behind the smoke is also apparent, one’s white, the other’s black. Mephisto needs Faust’s signature, but he refuses when Faust wants to sign the contract with a white feather, no; he wants the signature to be written with his black feather.
Why is Faust the best candidate for the bet between the Archangel and the Devil? Because he is not blinded by religion, he seeks knowledge. When Faust is lecturing his students, a decoration in the form of a planet behind him is lit up. Firstly, it suggests that Faust is interested in the universe, in the truth as well which doesn’t depend on religious beliefs. And secondly, his head also lights up in the close-up shot, suggesting he is a thinker, a philosopher.
During the opening scene we see a carnival going on in Faust’s village. People dancing, cheering and enjoying themselves. One attraction stands out. Behind a white curtain a shadow play is being performed by someone’s hands. It represents a very revealing camera shot that explains how to perceive the whole film. The film Faust is the same for the film audience, as this play is for the villagers. It is a staged play which is defined through shadows and light. MURNAU’S film has a ‘stage’ feel to it, every scene is reminding the audience that it shouldn’t take Faust as serious reality, but rather as a fairytale, thus the name ‘FAUST-EINE VOLKSSAGE’.
One of the more obvious symbols is the white sword of the Archangel with whom he threatens the Devil. After the bet has begun, the Devil rises upon the village to let the plague loose. Underneath him lies the village church, strongly resembling the form of Archangels sword, reminding the Devil to be careful, because he an eye on him.
Gretchen experiences a very similar DESTINY that befalls Faust. One of the most respected people in the village was Faust until Mephisto arrived, the same happened to Gretchen. The Devil gets Faust to sign a contract and to be young again, just as he accomplished to get Gretchen to fall for Faust with a help of a magic necklace. The villagers turn against Faust when they find out he’s sold out, just as they turn their backs on Gretchen after Valentin’s murder. In the end they both burn in the flames under the judgement of the villagers.
Everybody inside the village likes to celebrate, but there are three very important celebrations that reveal an extra layer to the story.
- The first is a Carnival at the opening of the movie. It’s the best time to spread the plague, while everyone is pretending to be dead and faking to be a monster. The celebration of a nightmare ends up killing half of the village.
- After Faust gets into a phase of boredom, he thinks of returning to his village. When he arrives people are celebrating Eastern. It’s a highly metaphorical scene, because the folk recently recovered from the loss from the plague. Besides that, it is a celebration of his Homecoming, so he can start a new life, like the resurrection of the Christ.
- By the end of the movie the folk celebrates Christmas. During this time it’s Faust’s boy that is born, just as Christ a long time ago. Only this one dies of coldness.
The day Valentin (Gretchen’s brother) returned, he brought GIFTS for his mother and sister.
He brought two scarfs for his loved ones. Two reasons are connected to the scarf’s, one being his wish to keep them warm (which later fails, because the mother dies in a big, cold storm and Gretchen’s baby also dies in the snow storm during Christmas) and the second, so they can use it as a shield, which is a stand-in for Valentin (that’s protecting them), when he’s not present.
The use of framed shots is conveying a clear message that this movie is an adaptation of a stage play, and between these borders is where the action happens, just as it the case in the theatre. MURNAU explicitly wants the audience to feel like they are in the theatre.
To confirm the metaphor of the theatre is Mephisto’s acting as a theatre technician. When Faust gets ready to sleep with the ‘Herzogin of Parma’, Mephisto is lurking above them to close the curtain, showing the audience that this movie is portraying common theatrical actions in a motion picture format, before the scene fades to black.
There’s no meaning attached to the name Faust (germ. Fist), when considering the German translation, but when translating from Latin, it bears the explanation of the character that Faust ‘…is fortunate, enjoying his luck.’
But if he’s not the positive character in this story, who is it then? It’s Gretchen. She’s honest, innocent and young. Bad script writing made her unfortunate appearance begin only half way into the movie. Audiences can identify with her and root for her, thereby reaching the level of tragedy the story is portraying.
STRUCTURE OF THE MOVIE
The film doesn’t follow the structure a movie should have. That’s why the whole harmony feels shifted. The attention is not directed towards the plague or the wager, but on Faust’s hedonism.
Because of that, the moral of the story disappears, and the audience losses sight of what should be accepted as important and what should be neglected. This is the structure as it is presented to the audience, not as it should look like:
1. Establishing the goal: The Devil and the Archangel place a bet for Faust’s soul.
2. Conflict: The Devil doesn’t care about agreements and sends the plague on the village Faust lives in.
3. Disappointment: The plague is too harsh and Faust can’t stop it, he begins to lose belief.
4. Reaction: After Faust realises he can’t produce the cure he gives in and summons Mephisto and asks for a cure, to be young again and to find him a girl, which the Devil is more than happy to fulfil.
5. Dilemma: After he heard Gretchen screaming for help, he’s on his way to help her.
6. Decision: Mephisto turns Faust into the old man again and Faust begs Gretchen forgiveness while they both burn in the flames.
In the beginning of the movie it’s assumed that the wager is an important factor in the story, but till the end no one mentions it. Also it was very clear that Faust’s village needs desperately help, which also lost focus after the first third of the movie. Clear established goals lost their importance during the course of the film. The main part of the movie is focusing on Faust’s desires. By the end of the film, only the bet is resolved in a rather quick manner and the audience is left with too many questions that needed to be solved.
QUESTIONS NOT ANSWERED
Inside this spectacle no cost restrictions were made and it was the most expensive production till that year in Germany. Everything has to be in the right place for such a high amount of money that is put into it. While the director concentrated on the sets and the grandiose presentation he needed to deliver, the main questions were left unanswered. The questions of ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ were disregarded as unimportant. Only the ‘who’ is answered in the form of Faust’s character. Other questions:
- What is the last name of Faust and Gretchen?
- What is the village called that Faust lives in? When Mephisto took Faust on a journey to Italy, it was clear were they headed to. But in Germany it is unclear where this ‘folktale’ takes place.
- When is this story taking place? The middle ages?
- How old is Faust and Gretchen? She seems very young.
- What happened to the town folk after Faust became young and suddenly took off?
- Why was the scene with Gretchen’s aunt so important? It is a very long scene, but it has no reason to take that much of attention.
- Gretchen was burned on the stake, but she never found out that she was under the spell of the Devil, which made her fall in love with Faust. She was innocent, honest and she never found out she’s been manipulated. Why doesn’t she deserve to know?
Many answers could be explained through the nature of the story. If it has to be relatable for everyone in the audience, then the story should be as generic as possible. But this decision failed, because it’s hard to relate to a character that is practically unknown. His motifs aren’t clear. His past is uncertain and his decisions need justification.
WHO WON THE WAGER?
The wager goes as follows: ‘If the Devil can take Faust’s soul, he would receive the earth!’
The Devil already won the wager in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. From the moment on when Faust signed the contract, his soul didn’t belong to him anymore. Mephisto took Faust’s soul through manipulation as he inflicted the horror of the plague on the village. In the most desperate moments Faust summoned him, so Mephisto would help the villagers.
And this was not the only time Faust placed his soul in the hands of the Devil. During Faust’s stay in Italy as a younger self, ready to sleep with the ‘Herzogin von Parma’, his contract was fulfilled, but Faust was greedy and made a new pact. He demanded to stay young forever and to be the property of the Devil.
It is very clear who won the bet, but for unknown reasons the Archangel won at the end. He told the Devil that it needs only one word to destroy the contract. This word is ‘Liebe’ (Love). That would be true, if the film really portrayed this unbeatable human emotion. But it didn’t. Gretchen’s love was artificial, brought to her in the form of a cursed necklace and under this poisonous spell she gave herself up to Faust. Faust on the other hand, didn’t love Gretchen in the honest way; he fell for her because of her stunning beauty, just like when he fell for the ‘Herzogin von Parma’. And on top of that, he lied to Gretchen about everything. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t young and he has no remorse for his wrong decisions. If we go one step further, it can be noticed that the Archangel already lost the bet in the moment he was conducting it. The Devil was very clever in his proceedings that he even manipulated the Archangel in doing business with him, witout him knowing it. It is also suggested that the Archangel has the power of God to bargain with with the Devil, which he doesn’t.
Many aspects of FAUST inspired other artists, either by using the story in a different contexts or using the metaphors and symbolism to portray a stylized version of their story. Examples:
1. Bedazzled (Harold Ramis, 2000), tells the story of Elliot (Brandon Fraser) who gets into business with the Devil (Elisabeth Hurley) in exchange for granted wishes.
2. Faust needs to call Mephisto’s name three times before he appears. The same technique is applied in Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), when Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) summon the demon to help them to get rid of the tenants.
3. The tragic end that befalls Gretchen as an innocent and wrongfully accused young maiden has a lot of similarities in the story of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928). They both burn for their beliefs and both movies are visually stylized.
4. In Faust, Mephisto takes Faust on a journey to Italy on his ‘flying cloak’, very similar to the rug in Aladdin (Bruno Corbucci, 1986).
5. In the middle of the movie, a scene occurs where Faust chases after Gretchen and Gretchen’s aunt chases after Mephisto. This scene is different to the whole dark concept of the movie by lighting up the mood way too much and presenting the scene aspure slapstick comedy in the likes of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern times (Charles Chaplin, 1936).
This movie should be a masterpiece, but its flaws can’t be overlooked. Nonetheless, it’s amazing how this film was made in the year 1926. with such incredible creative effort. The atmosphere is outstanding and so many title cards are still quotable in this day and era.