Part of the Detroit Film Theatre’s ongoing F. W. Murnau series, this adaptation of Goethe’s Faust is the last film the legendary director made in Germany before leaving for Hollywood. A silent film from 1926, it’s not as compelling as two other entries in the series, The Last Laugh and Sunrise, but the medieval setting is an appropriate backdrop for Murnau’s expressionistic flourishes. Even when the story flags, the visuals retain their dramatic impact.
In screenwriter Hans Kyser’s version, Mephisto (Emil Jannings) sees Faust (Gösta Ekman) as a challenge, a pious sort whose soul would be a trophy if he could wrest it from God. But first he must bring Faust to a state of despair. Mephisto infests Faust’s village with plague, and when Faust realizes that neither his scientific knowledge nor his faith in prayer can save the people dying around him, he sinks into inconsolable disillusionment. He’s now ripe for a deal with the devil.
When Mephisto first appears to Faust he seems, in dress and manner, like a roughish peasant, an appropriate guise for someone who’s trying to wheedle somebody into making a deal. Once Faust has taken the bait and is granted his wish to be a young man again, Mephisto’s appearance changes as well, becoming the familiar widow-peaked figure in a large satin cape — no point in disguising himself now.
This depiction of Mephisto is where the film creaks a little. Jannings was a German actor who briefly became an international star, the first person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor and probably most famous now for his role as the professor who becomes fatally infatuated with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. But his baroque acting style now seems dated and often absurd; it’s definitely an acquired taste.
After the newly young Faust tires of the wine, women and song scene he returns to his village and promptly falls for the innocent Gretchen. This happiness does not set well with Mephisto, who manages to maneuver things into a tragic end. But before that happens there’s an oddly humorous interlude where Mephisto flirts with Gretchen’s aunt, and Jannings shows that his comedic approach was just as broad as his dramatic one.
This Faust seems a little distant, a morality tale told with a heavy hand and peopled by archetypes. Still, Murnau’s visual imagination is working full throttle here, making this a must- see for serious devotees of this director and this period.
Showing at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 17, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.