Faust – A German Folktale (German: Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage) is a 1926 silent film produced by Ufa, directed by F. W. Murnau, starring Gösta Ekman as Faust, Emil Jannings as Mephisto, Camilla Horn as Gretchen/Marguerite, Frida Richard as her mother, Wilhelm Dieterle as her brother and Yvette Guilbert as Marthe Schwerdtlein, her aunt. Murnau’s film draws on older traditions of the legendary tale of Faust as well as on Goethe’s classic 1808 version. Ufa wanted Ludwig Berger to direct Faust, as Murnau was engaged with Variety; Murnau pressured the producer and, backed by Jannings, eventually persuaded Erich Pommer to let him direct the film.
Faust was Murnau’s last German film, and directly afterward he moved to the US under contract to William Fox to direct Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927); when the film premiered in the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin, Murnau was already shooting in Hollywood. It has been praised for its special effects and is regarded as an example of German Expressionist film.
The demon Mephisto has a bet with an Archangel that he can corrupt a righteous man’s soul and destroy in him what is divine. If he succeeds, the Devil will win dominion over earth.
The Devil delivers a plague to the village where Faust, an elderly alchemist, lives. Though he prays to stop the death and starvation, nothing happens. Disheartened, Faust throws his alchemy books in the fire, and then the Bible too. One book opens, showing how to have power and glory by making a pact with the Devil. He goes to a crossroads as described in the book’s procedure and conjures up the forces of evil. When Mephisto appears at the roadside, he induces Faust to make a trial, 24-hour bargain with the Devil. Faust will have Mephisto’s service till the sand runs out in an hourglass, at which time the Devil will rescind the pact. At first, Faust uses his new power to help the people of the village, but they shun him when they find out that he cannot face a cross. They stone him and he takes shelter in his home.
Faust then makes a further deal with Mephisto, who gives Faust back his youth and offers him earthly pleasures and a kingdom, in return for his immortal soul. Mephisto tempts Faust with the vision of a beautiful woman. He then takes him to a wedding feast in Parma, to meet the subject of his vision, an Italian Duchess. Faust departs with her, leaving the Devil to kill her groom. Just as Faust is making love to her the sands run out. He is obliged to seal the deal permanently in order to continue his love-making; he is Mephisto’s forever.
Faust soon grows weary of debauchery and yearns for “Home”. Here Faust falls in love with an innocent girl, Gretchen, who is charmed into loving Faust by a golden chain left by the Devil.
Faust comes to Gretchen’s room. The devil rouses the mother who sees them and drops dead from shock. The devil then incites her soldier brother, Valentin, to run home to catch her lover. Valentin and Faust fight a duel. The Devil intervenes and stabs Valentin in the back. He then goes around town shouting “murder”. Faust and Mephisto flee on the back of a hellish steed.
Valentin condemns Faust for his murder and his sister as a harlot in his dying breath. She is put in the stocks and subjected to jeering. The girl has a child (by Faust) and ends up in the streets. In a blizzard she sees a vision of a warm cradle and lays her child down on the snow, where the child dies. Soldiers find her and she is sent to the stake as a murderess. Faust sees what is happening and demands Mephisto take him there. Faust arrives just as the fire has been started to burn his lover. Faust wishes he had never asked to have his youth back. Mephisto smashes the mirror with Faust’s reflection and he loses his youth. He runs through the assembled mob towards Gretchen; and it is as an old man that Faust throws himself onto the fire to be with his beloved.
Gretchen recognizes Faust and sees him in her heart as a young man again as the fire consumes them together. Their spirits rise to the heavens. The angel reveals to Mephisto that he has lost the bet because Love has triumphed over all.
Directed by F. W. Murnau
Written by Hans Kyser
Produced by Erich Pommer
Gösta Ekman – Faust
Emil Jannings – Mephisto
Camilla Horn – Gretchen
Frida Richard – Gretchen’s mother
William Dieterle – Valentin, Gretchen’s brother
Yvette Guilbert – Marthe Schwerdtlein, Gretchen’s aunt
Eric Barclay – Duke of Parma
Hanna Ralph – Duchess of Parma
Werner Fuetterer – Archangel
Original release date:
October 14, 1926