In today's chapter of our ongoing tribute to horror's early days, we take a look at an epic dark fantasy from director F.W. Murnau, whom you may remember as the director of the 1922 film Nosferatu, the first – though unofficial – cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. (For a really cool fictionalized take on the making of that film, check out E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire.) When Murnau returned to horror four years later, he did so in a major way, with the most elaborate and expensive German film production to date; Fritz Lang's monumental Metropolis would edge it out of the top spot the following year.
The story of Faust is universally known, but got a big boost from an adaptation by renowned German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which was published in the early 1800s. The legend itself involves a master alchemist (Gösta Ekman) who makes a series of bargains with the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings, in a career-making performance) to save his town from a deadly plague. The first bargain succeeds, but makes him an outcast; his second deal grants him youth and wealth (in exchange for his soul, of course), and the affections of a beautiful duchess (Hanna Ralpha). But that deal goes south, and Faust returns home, still young and handsome, where he falls in love with an innocent young woman (Camilla Horn). It's at this point when things go very, very badly for the star-crossed lovers.
While Faust initially failed at the box office, it has since been celebrated by filmmakers and fans worldwide for its pioneering achievements in special effects, including multiple exposure techniques and elaborate miniatures (the image of Satan casting his wings of doom over the town is still terrifying today), and it has inspired everything from Disney's Fantasia (the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence, with its hordes of flying demons) to Hellraiser – that film's “Lament Configuration” bears a strong resemblance to the box clutched by Mephisto here:
Faust would be Murnau's last German production; he moved to the US the following year and kicked off the Hollywood phase of his career. Although he never returned to the horror genre, his two genre masterpieces (and arguably the best films of his career) live on as landmarks of surreal, stylish and expressionistic art that helped change the face of horror for all time.
The best DVD version of Faust comes from Kino Video, using a composite cut assembled from all the best available prints, with a newly-recorded score and a making-of documentary. (It's currently available at Amazon.) A must-see for fans of gothic imagery and a master class for any aspiring horror filmmaker.