As most critics have pointed out, it is the beginning and ending of Murnau’s film that most capture the imagination. What is particularly interesting to me is that, just as in the massive movement of crowds in Fritz Lang’s great Metropolis of the following year, how much of the forthcoming Nazi philosophy is hinted at in Murnau’s work. Faust (Gösta Ekman) begins as a wise old man, determined to help his fellow beings who, through the contagion-filled cloak of the terrifying and horrific Mephisto (Emil Jannings)—played out on the screen, in almost Kabuki-style, in a series of dark shadows and endlessly smoke-filled models of small villages—who infects Faust’s small, beloved community with the plague. In reality, these smoky mists were created, in part, by the burning of unwanted nitrate film, an ironic occurrence given the fact that so many of the films of this period would be destroyed or partially eaten away by the decaying of that very substance or, in many cases, the actual burning of the films. In some instances, the fumes sickened members of Murnau’s cast.
Despite Faust’s healing powers, his deep knowledge of alchemy, and even his prayers, the dead continue to be delivered up to his door. Suddenly doubting his own ability and, more importantly, dismissing all the knowledge he has received from his books, Faust determines to burn his library, first the books on alchemy and ultimately the Bible itself—an act so appalling that it alone seems almost to call up the Devil, as the fire flips the page to reveal the method to conjure him up, a frightful prophesy of the Nazi book burnings to come.
More like the Devil’s deal with Joe Boyd in the American musical Damn Yankees than Faust’s pact with Mephisto in Goethe, Murnau’s Mephisto first offers Faust a 24-hour bargain, in which time Faust uses his power for the betterment of his people. But when they discover that he cannot face a cross, they attempt to stone him, and Faust has, one might suggest, little choice but to continue his pact, demanding a younger self.
First seducing the Italian Duchess of Parma, which results in the death of her groom on the wedding day, Faust goes on to a series of sexual encounters and orgies, until, growing tired, he yearns—like so many figures of German literature—for die Heimat, where he immediately encounters the simple, but beautiful, peasant girl, Gretchen.
Most discussants agree that this part of the film is the weakest, due, in part, to the bland acting talents of the neophyte actor Camilla Horn. If she is not stellar, however, she certainly suffices to represent the kind of simplicity after which Faust now lusts. And the wonderful scenes with her bawdy, rum-toting aunt, Marthe Schwerdtlein (played by the veteran actress, Yvette Guilbert), later to be seduced by Mephisto himself, are worth our attention.
When Faust leaves Gretchen, moreover, with a child and no source of survival, Horn’s surreal-like attempts to protect her baby in a snow-storm by buying it, if overacted, are sufficiently moving. It is the child’s death which leads to the community’s demand that she be burned at the stake, Faust returning to her, again as an old man whom she miraculously recognizes and demonstrates her love, saving her—and Faust’s souls.
It may represent little consolation, as Roger Ebert argues, that as both burn upon the pyre the archangel proclaims this couple are saved, but this is, after all, not so much a real presentation of a human Faust and Gretchen as of doll-like figures representing them. As Ebert himself suggests, it is the very melodramatic and over-staged elements of Murnau’s work which make it so visually powerful. This is myth at its most elemental presentation, a legend in which we viscerally comprehend that the abandonment of reason and knowledge can only end in sacrificing life itself.