Faust (1926)
Directed by F.W. Murnau

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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An angel makes a wager with the devil, agreeing to hand the world over to the latter if he can corrupt the soul of one pious man, Faust (Gösta Ekman). Soon thereafter, the diabolical Mephisto (Emil Jannings) arrives in the plague ravaged town where the learned alchemist Faust lives and strikes a bargain with that man, promising to give him the power to heal the sick if he will renounce God. Although Faust is, at first, dissatisfied with their compact, Mephisto tempts him with youth, which leads the aged mortal to succumb to the demon's blandishments. Later, having travelled across the world, Faust comes upon a young woman, Gretchen (Camilla Horn), with whom he falls in love, and has Mephisto use his powers to help him seduce her.

F.W. Murnau's Faust, while certainly not a masterpiece, is a generally well made, often captivating, and occasionally gorgeous movie.

The film is rarely stunning visually, but it is, more often than not, appealing to look at. Moreover, the director has included in his work a number of sequences of remarkable beauty. Soon after the movie's beginning, for example, Murnau conjures up a haunting vision of a vast winged demon looming over a Medieval town. Later, he unveils images of windswept deserts, of simple, charming homes, of sumptuous courts, and more. Admittedly, the film's loveliest moments are fleeting, but when the moviegoer is allowed to see them he is sure to be awed and, consequently, drawn into the fantastic world the director has created.

Sadly, Faust is not nearly as appealing narratively as it is visually. The first part of the film is nicely realized, but the second is often meandering and frequently maudlin. The emotive impact of the earlier portion is, as a result, not sustained in these later scenes.

Be this as it may, the first act of the film is genuinely fascinating. Mephisto begins his temptation of the devout protagonist by promising to serve him, initially, for only one day, allowing Faust to decide at the end of that day if he wants to make their agreement permanent. During this trial period, Faust endeavors to help others with the devil's powers, but, as he is unsuccessful in doing so, he loses interest in the compact he has made. Mephisto, seeing this, then grants the man youth and takes him to a beautiful woman so that, when the day has come to an end, Faust must either conclude his amorous adventure or sign away his soul. Naturally, he chooses the latter.

The second part of the movie, however, which revolves around Faust's courtship of Gretchen and Mephisto's magical efforts both to further that seduction and to betray his master, is generally rather dull and may actually bore the viewer. What is more, after the tragic conclusion of the hero's relationship with Gretchen, Faust and Mephisto leave the movie, which, until nearly its very end, focuses exclusively on the somewhat manipulatively presented hardships that the unlucky, abandoned girl subsequently endures.

Because it is deeply flawed, I cannot say that Faust approaches greatness. It does incorporate a number of inspired moments, and the first half of the tale it tells is enthralling, but its occasionally lackluster images and its tedious second half considerably diminish its appeal.

Review by Keith Allen

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