Man can Murnau make a film, and I was more than delighted to sit down and watch the director’s silent film version of the story of Faust as the next title in DK Canada’s Monsters in the Movies.
Filled with special effects that feature a number that still stand up today, the story follows a wager between the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) and an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) about the nature of the man, and how they will always choose evil for their own betterment, and shun god and goodness if it means they can benefit from it.
At the heart of the wager is Faust (Gosta Elman) whom Mephisto is convinced he can corrupt, and should he succeed, evil and darkness will lay claim to the entire world. The archangel agrees and the ball starts rolling pretty quickly from there.
When evil sends a plague, the people turn to Faust for help, but when he is unable to save a true believer in god, they turn on him. But Mephisto tempts him with treasure, youth, and beautiful women, while always working to completely corrupt and destroy Faust at the same time.
He manipulates things so that Faust meets and falls for a young woman named Gretchen (Camilla Horn) in his home town where he returns after all of his demon-induced debauchery. Faust is caught by her brother Valentin (William Dieterle), whom Mephisto murders and accuses Faust of, while slandering Gretchen, it seems Faust’s fate is sealed. He’s been given everything he asked for by the demon, but has all of it turn around and become ashes in his mouth.
But his undying love for Gretchen, and hers for him may be the key to saving both of their souls from Mephisto, and the world from falling into darkness.
The storytelling isn’t subtle, demons and the devil are bad, Christianity is good. But the way Murnau brings it to life on the screen really holds up. The man knew how to use his effects as well as knowing how to make something look really creepy.
This is a silent film that flies by, just shy of a two hour runtime, it completely engages, and definitely wowed me with the technical prowess at work in the film. And just imagine, they had to come up with a number of these effects and how to execute them on the fly, as they didn’t have special effects companies like they do today. They had to do all of it themselves, and it looks fantastic.
It still does.
There’s more titles to come as I explore more of the Devil’s Work chapter in DK Books’ very enjoyable Monsters in the Movies. Pick one up today, and find something truly monstrous to watch!