Faust (1926): I’d Sell My Soul for a Donut

Everyone knows the story of Faust. It has been so incorporated into our cultural zeitgeist that even those who have never read or seen it produced are familiar with the man who sold his soul to the devil (or have at least seen the Simpsons’ loving tribute). I have experienced Faust formally twice: I have read Marlowe’s dramatic telling of the tale, and have seen The Magic Bullet, a “goth-rock opera” written by Tom Waits and William S. Burrough (the latter of which I cannot recommend highly enough to all, the former I recommend to any drama enthusiasts). And still, when Murnau’s Faust (1926) began, I did not know what to expect from the experimental German silent film.

Synopsis: Faust sells his soul to Satan in exchange for absolute power, and (wah-wah) learns the price he pays is steeper than he anticipated. Meanwhile, the cosmos look on, in wager over our true human nature, with Faust acting as representative for humankind.

From the beginning, this was an unfamiliar telling of the legend to me. Our story opens on an angel and a demon (God and Satan themselves?), staking their ultimate opinion of human nature on the actions of Faust. Satan argues that even the most pure among us can be corrupted, with God having more faith in his ungrateful, drunken brood. Being most familiar with the Marlowe version, I immediately felt like this was unfair – not Faust! Not that guy! He’s reckless with hedonism! Yet in this version (apparently closer to the Goethe telling), you could not hope for a more noble stand-in. He only considers the Devil’s contract after his faith and love in God has been testing beyond limits by witnessing the devastating effects of the plague (Monty Python shout-out: “bring out your dead!”). Faust is a saintly figure, pitiable at the outset for his pain and determination to help his townspeople regardless of the cost – even more so for the people’s abrupt turn on Faust as they suspect his collusion with Satan.

But alas! The devil is tricky. Mephisto (the devil’s representative to Faust – or in this telling, seemingly the devil himself) does not well conceal his nefarious intentions. He hunches over, eyes darting left to right, wringing his hands in anticipation at the devastation he intends to unleash. He looks like scum: dirty, shifty, and weasely – it would take one in dire straits to consider this gentleman trustworthy. And yet, in his sneaky cowering, he presents himself as a servant; his demeanour speaks of a lowly creature. No doubt it is this quality that allows Faust the illusion of control in their relationship, rendering the idea of their agreement more palatable. Poor Faust should have known better. He is nearly powerless in this pairing, despite his label of “master”.

For Mephisto knows what lurks in the hearts of young men. Anticipating corruption would be easier in a less experienced, less wise man, he convinces Faust that happiness lies in his youth. Once Faust has asked for youth, Mephisto uses the power of his lust for the most beautiful woman in Italy to secure a binding contract.  Ah lust, my favourite of the deadly sins. Along with gluttony. And sloth. And greed (which is good, right? I swear I heard that somewhere…). John Doe would have a field day with me. Sin-apalooza!!

Which is a good segue to the rather rapid decline in Faust’s moral fabric. Because sin he does. Over and over. At times, even Mephisto seems taken aback by Faust’s demands. When Faust initially sees Gretchen and desires her, Mephisto warns that such a young, pious girl “is not for you.” However surprised he might be by Faust’s moral deterioration, he simultaneously appears delighted that his quarry has taken such a dramatic turn to the dark side. Or perhaps he is just delighted at the opportunity to wreak more havoc, as we soon see that Mephisto’s plan is to cause as much misery and tragedy as is demonly possible. Gretchen’s ruination is devastating and heart-wrenching to witness.

Murnau is an incredibly well-known and respected director, and Faust is yet another example of why. Above and beyond the superb narrative and performances, this film should be seen by all film-lovers for Murnau’s eye-goggling visuals. Yes, they are eye-goggling; so superb as to require the invention of new gibberish. The overlay of the devil looming over the town to signify the arrival of the plague must have terrified new film-goers. Murnau’s direction sleight of hand is genius; he uses small techniques to great effect – for example, using lighting to make Mephisto’s eyes glow menacingly. Several of the visuals are so powerful  as to elicit strong emotional reactions from the a single image (for instance, Gretchen in the snow).

It is a remarkably effective picture, [for anyone not interested in knowing how it ends, SPOILER!!] at least until the overly simplistic, saccharine-esque ending. I am a bit of a cynic in this regard, I know, but I much prefer the finale to Marlowe’s play. I just cannot wrap my head around the notion that human love reined victorious, particularly when we see remarkably little evidence that Faust cares for Gretchen beyond his own personal desires (what the film classifies as “love,” I would probably consider “obsession” as his actions are not driven by her interests but by his own). I suppose we are to see his final act as redeeming and proof of his genuine affection, but after everything that has come before, it rings hollow in the moment.

Finally, I struggle with the idea that God has won the argument because Faust sacrifices himself. The townspeople throughout the film treat Mephisto’s victims with unbridled cruelty, despite being “people of God.” They shun Gretchen and leave her and her infant to die in the blizzard. While I understand that Mephisto (Satan?) created these situations with such cruelty in mind, it is the “moral,” god-fearing folk that permit the suffering to flourish. Mephisto can only exploit and destroy Gretchen so thoroughly because he understands the nature of social and religious judgment. Yet these people and their actions are not condemned; rather their behaviour is treated as the norm, as acceptable when faced with such filth.

Or were they condemned? Was part of Murnau’s intention to reveal the hypocrisy behind such thinking? I should probably watch it several more times to figure it out. Which I will gladly do. Because despite my minor reservations, this is a film that transcends the era in which was created; it speaks beyond its silent roots. It is a powerful movie and, agree with the end or not, I am still thinking about it days later.

Favourite scene: Has to be the hedonists, preparing for the end by celebrating, claiming they will die while dancing rather than knelt in prayer. I’m with youse guys!

Fun Fact: five versions of Faust are known to exist out of the over thirty original copies found across the globe. The French version is said to be the worst, with the most number of errors left in (ex: Gretchen tripping on her dress).

Until the next,

K

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~ by K. Harker on February 7, 2011.

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