“The Voice of the Tempter”
Director: F. W. Murnau
Cast: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn
Synopsis: The demon Mephisto wagers with God that he can corrupt a mortal man’s soul.
Largely overlooked today (in comparison, for example, to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which would be released the following year), Faust, director F. W. Murnau’s final German film, was one of the most technologically advanced movies of its time, although it failed at the box office, recouping only half of its’ 2 million mark budget. There were apparently more than thirty versions of Faust, some of them personally prepared by Murnau, and only five of which are known to survive. Despite its neglected status, Faust remains a visually impressive piece of work with an enjoyably Gothic feel, and a lively, impish performance from Emil Jannings (Anna Boleyn) as Mephistopheles.
Based on the play by Goethe, Faust sees Mephistopheles engaging in a wager with God. The Devil believes his influence is so great that he is capable of persuading one of God’s Children to trade his soul in return for personal gain. He chooses as his target an alchemist named Faust (Gosta Ekmann), a well-meaning old man who searches in vain for a cure to a plague which Mephistopheles has visited upon his town. In one of many impressive effects we see the giant figure of the devil looming over the stricken town as it falls ever deeper under his malign spell. So disillusioned is Faust that he burns his alchemy books and the Bible. When one of the burning books falls open at a page which explains how to strike a bargain with the Devil, the desperate Faust resolves to do just that in order to save the town. However, having done so, he’s dismayed to find the townspeople turn on him when they discover he is unable to face the sign of the cross.
Having successfully destroyed Faust’s faith in both God and his fellow man, Mephistopheles then tempts him with the earthy delights available to an old man who has regained his youth. Faust succumbs, especially when tempted with a vision of a curvaceous Italian Duchess (Hanna Ralph – Die Nibelungen – Siegfried, Die Nibelungen – Kriemhild’s Rach) in the altogether, and thus begins a downward path that sees him impregnating Gretchen (Camilla Horn – Eternal Love), an innocent young maiden who is the film’s true figure of tragedy.
Although the subject matter largely dictates the film’s tone, there was a dark imagination about the German cinema of the 1920s that is encapsulated within Faust’s austere Gothic sets and unsettling melange of tragi-comedy. Jannings plays Mephistopheles as a capering figure of malevolent mischief, complete with nubby horns, jaunty black feather and an unbridled libido which sees him lewdly fondling a flirtatious middle-aged spinster while putting in place the seeds of her daughter’s destruction. But he’s not alone in his misdeeds. In fact, nobody but Gretchen comes out of the story with any real credit and, like a true Biblical martyr, she’s the one who suffers most. Faust is repentant at movie’s end, but only after surrendering to his basest desires, and there’s a coldness about Ekmann, who, in his younger persona, appears to be channelling Rudolph Valentino, that prevents us from warming to him. Nevertheless, Faust is a visually arresting dark fantasy that holds the attention with an array of impressive special effects and good old-fashioned sex.
(Reviewed 18th May 2015)