Director: F. W. Murnau
Screenplay: Hans Kyser
Starring: Gosta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn
Running Time: 110 minutes
Genre: Fantasy, horror
This is a frustrating film in many ways because at it's best it is one of the best movies of it's period and deserves to be acknowledged as one of the great fantasy films, if it weren't for the fact that it is severely hampered by an overlong mid-section which verges between ludicrously melodramatic love scens and knockabout farce.
The film tells the familiar story of the devil, Mephisto (Jannings) who makes a wager with an angel that he can corrupt the soul of the scholarly and pious Faust (Ekman). If Mephisto is successful then he wins dominion of the Earth. Mephisto sends a plague to decimate Faust's hometown. When all his prayers and medical learning are proved useless, Faust sinks into despair and cynicism. He eventually raises up Mephisto who makes a bargain with him, that he will return Faust's lost youth and will do whatever he demands. Faust soon decides to make up for lost time and basically sets out on a worldwide bender, with Mephisto enthusiatically helping him becomes some kind of 18th century Russell Brand. Howver things soon swing out of control when Faust falls in love with the innocent Gretchen (Horn).
This silent film is subtitled "A German Folk Tale" and that is the best way to see it. It is like a folk tale put on screen. The script draws on the famous versions of the Faust legend by Johann Goethe and Christopher Marlowe as well as some older sources. Modern audiences may have trouble with some of the exagerrated acting styles which were very common in silent cinema and were a perfectly legitamate style of performance at the time. Murnaus, who is probably best known for Nosferatu (1922), was a superb visual stylist and the film still looks beautiful with many stand out scenes, particularly Faust and Mephisto's round the world flight on Mephisto's Satanic cloak, and the demonic figure looming over the town. It's prevented from being a truly great film however by an overly melodramatic mid-section which concentrates more on a love story and adopts a much more pedestrian visual style than the earlier third of the film and the final scenes.
However for the visuals alone this is a must-see for any fans of fantasy or horror cinema.