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Classic Pick: Faust (1926)


F.W. Murnau’s Faust is a classic in every sense of the word. The film opens with a Job-like bet between the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) and an Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) that Mephisto can take a righteous man and corrupt his soul. The man he chooses is Faust (Gosta Ekman), an alchemist and physician whose village is being decimated by the plague (sent by the Devil, of course). Faust despairs when he perceives that God has not answered his prayers for help, and journeys to the crossroads to make a bargain with the Devil for Mephisto’s assistance. Faust’s initial impulses are for good – to alleviate the suffering in the village – but he soon falls prey to Mephisto’s wheedling and makes a further bargain for good looks, youth, and power, traveling the world in search of earthly pleasures. He finally finds the hope of salvation with an innocent girl, Gretchen (Camilla Horn), but Mephisto naturally has other plans.

The film takes a page from early Faust traditions as well as Goethe’s famous story, and is unique for its relatively sympathetic view of Faust’s initial bargain with Mephisto. Like many of Murnau’s surviving films, it’s also an epic of German Expressionism, featuring images like the potent form of Mephisto unraveling black wings over a village, in a scene that would be copied by Walt Disney for the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. Murnau’s work was extraordinarily influential on the development of cinema – that in itself is an argument for viewing Faust – but it’s also a highly entertaining film in its own right. It’s a Gothic, tender, and even humorous story that delineates the complexities of faith and righteousness with a delicacy of touch unseen in many contemporary films. The limited use of intertitles and some visuals and special effects still astound, almost 90 years after it was made.

There is no better argument for the preservation of film than F.W. Murnau’s Faust.