(vt Faust: A German Popular Legend) German movie (1926). Dir F W Murnau. Spfx Carl Hoffmann. Screenplay Hans Kyser. Based on Part 1 of Faust (1808) by Goethe. Novelization Faust * (circa 1927) by Hayter Preston and Henry Savage. Starring Wilhelm Dieterle (Valentin), Gösta Ekmann (Faust), Werner Fuetterer (Archangel), Camilla Horn (Margarethe/Gretchen), Emil Jannings (Mephisto). 100 min. B/w. Silent.
An archangel bets the Devil, with the Earth as stake, that the virtuous alchemist (see Alchemy) Faust cannot be subverted to Evil. First the Devil casts plague over Faust's town; then he sends Mephisto (see Mephistopheles) to tempt the man with promises that he may cure the plague if he signs Pact with the Devil. Faust agrees to a 24-hour trial period. At first his cures work; then the citizens, seeing he is powerless to touch a crucifix, realize he is allied with Satan, and stone him. Retreating to his chambers, he again bargains with Mephisto, now being given youth and the abducted Herzogin of Parma, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Italy. Just as he is about to enjoy her, the 24 hours is up, and he agrees to the contract becoming permanent.
Some while later, tired of hedonism, he commands Mephisto to take him back to his hometown, just as it was. He is immediately besotted with the virtuous young woman Gretchen/Margarethe, and Mephisto uses Magic so that Faust may debauch her, but also frames Faust for the murder of Gretchen's brother Valentin. Ten months later, at Christmas, Gretchen is lost in the snow with her infant; delirious, she imagines a snowdrift is a cot, and puts the baby in it. Condemned to the stake for the baby's murder, she screams for Faust, who at the last returns with love on his lips to join her on the pyre. Because of his repentance and the purity of his Love, his Soul reverts to the Lord, and the Devil has lost his bet.
The tale is told with a tremendous sense of melodrama and not a little clumsy Humour. Where the movie is genuinely powerful is in the strength of Murnau's vision. Frame after frame is beautifully contrived, as if he were creating individual pieces of artwork. The spfx are grimly impressive – technically as good as most that would appear during the next several decades, but, more importantly, so boldly conceived as to be beyond any evaluation but awe. [JG]