Surrounded by Darkness: On F.W. Murnau’s Faust

Note: This is the hundred-and-thirty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1926 film, FAUST, directed by F.W. Murnau.

A shockingly clear yet unconsidered (by me) point about the work of F.W. Murnau was surfaced in Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review of FAUST. In it are various tidbits about the work ethic and creativity of the German director, which Ebert himself pulled from Lotte Eisner’s 1973 book MURNAU. But his paraphrase of one particular fact about Murnau is what I’m referring to: “He painted with light and shadow, sometimes complaining to his loyal cameraman, Carl Hoffmann, that he could see too much — that all should be obscured except the focus of a scene.”

Now, I’m not necessarily referring to the light and shadow part, that much has been made clear to me by his own work and its ties to Expressionism and Romanticism (FAUST may be the clearest fusion of these sensibilities, if not SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS [1927]). But the remarkable observation that “he could see too much!” What a beautiful concept.

Watching FAUST with this in mind, the already incredible fantasy film, Murnau’s last German work, becomes even more nuanced and singular. What Ebert via Eisner via Murnau was describing was not that the filmmaker’s movies took place in a dark void. It’s that Murnau used lighting and profound peripheral detail to enrich the focus of any given shot and give it more depth. Literally.

The production values of SUNRISE would be the peak of this practice for him, but Murnau’s particular interpretation of Expressionism was actually fueled by Romanticism. The angles and starkness of Expressionism meet the warmth and richness of Romanticism in Murnau’s films; even in NOSFERATU (1922). FAUST foreshadowed SUNRISE with its own gloomy bog and quaint village, environments still a bit more closely tied to Expressionism but presaging the beauty of classical Hollywood artifice nevertheless. And that artifice was beautiful because it never betrayed the artfulness of craft; the imagery in Murnau’s films, and those of peers, is not intended to be realistic. Instead, it’s approximating reality with that aforementioned light and shadow.

And what a reality to step into. FAUST is Murnau’s fusion of multiple versions of the sell-your-soul-to-the-devil legend; this is not necessarily a faithful ode to Goethe. But it is a faithful entrance into a fantastical world, UFA’s most expensive production until METROPOLIS (1927) was released the next year. The effects are incredible and the performances are admirable; Gösta Ekman is feverish as Faust, Emil Jannings toadlike as Mephisto, Camilla Horn beautifully plaintive by the end of the story as Gretchen. Faust and Mephisto’s conferences in hell are transformative, shifting the fantasy into a much more existential realm. The impact of Faust’s deal is felt in these sequences. But then, the metaphysical confrontations between an angel of God and Jannings’ devil, which bookend the film, also truly feel otherworldly and impart Murnau’s ultimate optimism…even if it may have been mandated by UFA and/or the culture and time in which he worked. The ending of THE LAST LAUGH (1924) was famously changed so as not to totally depress audiences, but the rest of the man’s work usually saw good triumph over evil.

In any event, by the end of FAUST, I felt like I returned from a journey to another realm, the land of light and shadow that Murnau so beautifully created, masterfully, in at least three works. To get back to the point illustrated at the beginning of this piece and its very title (something I don’t always do with these film essays), FAUST is a lasting presence precisely because it evokes a brilliant blend of representation and actuality. In Murnau’s shadows are the reminders, still potently and emotionally felt, that we are residing in a crafted world. In his light are the reminders of humanity and a transcendence of film stock and screen.

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