Wednesday, October 08, 2003

FAUST (1926)

F. W. Murnau's silent classic, based on a legendary tale made famous by Goethe, has some stunning fantasy/horror effects in the beginning, but it soon settles down into a rather humdrum romantic melodrama. The devil, Mephisto (Emil Jannings), and an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) are debating the nature of man and wind up making a bet: if Mephisto can corrupt the human Faust (Gosta Ekman), than the devil can have Faust and all of mankind. The devil descends onto a village, his bat-wing cloak enveloping the entire town, in a very spooky scene that must have influenced Disney's animators when they were concocting the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of FANTASIA. He brings the plague with him and Faust, a doctor, is overwhelmed by the horror and calls on the devil to help him. Mephisto gives Faust his youth back; Faust has an affair with the world's most beautiful woman (Hanna Ralph) and falls in love with the virginal Gretchen (Camilla Horn). In the meantime, the devil, now in a younger form as well, romances Gretchen's mother and aunt. Soon Faust sleeps with Gretchen; he is run out of town and she, pregnant without benefit of marriage, is put in the town stocks as punishment for her transgression. After she has her child, she is turned away by all the townspeople during a mighty snowstorm. She hallucinates a cradle in the snow and puts her baby in it; when the baby dies, she is condemned as a murderer and sentenced to die at the stake, setting the stage for Faust's attempt at redemption.

The visuals, in the areas of both effects and settings, are wonderous throughout. The conjuring of the devil at a crossroads, the devil's cloak scene, the flight of Faust and the devil around the world, and the burning of the words of the devil's contract into parchment are all carried off quite well. The younger Mephisto looks a bit like comic actor Eddie Izzard, and his reactions of nausea to the mass and to holy icons are amusing. Once Gretchen enters the scene, the movie slows down, but it does pick up a bit at the end. It is difficult for me to judge silent era acting, but everyone does a fine job, not seeming too overblown by today's standards. Generally, I would recommend this, especially for nighttime October viewing.

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