It says a lot about the continuing differences between the Old World and the New that not one of the many stabs at a straightforward cinematic version of Faust is American. The tale of the old man who sells his soul to have his youth back and then uses his new vigour to ruin a beautiful young girl’s life is a European staple, but probably not the sort of thing Tom Hanks’s agent is going to beat down Meg Ryan’s door with – in the New World you can have it all; in the Old it comes at a cost.
No matter, the German F.W. Murnau made this version in 1926, in the days when any country could make a silent film and show it anywhere in the world – no dubbing or subtitling required, of course. Now, I’m not going to pretend that Murnau’s liberties with the original text will make Goethe scholars happy. Nor will his Expressionist vision completely satisfy the Matrix generation either. But give yourself a few minutes of adjustment – and you will find yourself enjoying the fantastic special effects, the gothic extravagance of his actors’ gestures and Murnau’s flat refusal to be Naturalistic, unless he absolutely has to be. Look at the way Mephistopheles hovers over the sleepy German hamlet, all billowing malevolence – it’s a remarkable and haunting image and all done in camera, with models (obvious models at that). If only more films were like this.
Hollywood snapped Murnau up, and his actors, and showed them the sort of excess that modern film stars can only dream about. By the late Twenties Emil Jannings (the operatic and impish Mephistopheles) was among the most famous actors in the world. But by 1931 the careers of Jannings and Camilla Horn (who plays the pre-Raphaelite Gretchen) were over, killed by the talkies that exposed their accents, and Murnau had died in a car crash. The garden of earthly delights followed by the day of reckoning – how Faustian is that? Maybe the Americans are just being cautious.
© Steve Morrissey 2001