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God and Satan war over earth; to settle things, they wager on the soul of Faust, a learned and prayerful alchemist. During a plague, Faust despairs and burns his books after failing to stop death; Satan sends Mephisto to tempt Faust, first with insight into treating the plague and then with a day's return to youth. Mephisto is clever, timing the end of this 24 hours as Faust embraces the beautiful Duchess of Parma. Faust trades his soul for youth. Some time later, he's bored, and demands on Easter Sunday that Mephisto take him home. Faust promptly sees and falls in love with the beautiful Gretchen, whose liaison with him brings her dishonor. Is there redemption? Who wins the wager?Written by
"A wager: I will wrest Faust's soul away from God"
By 1925 UFA, German cinema's pioneer production company, was almost collapsing under the weight of mounting financial difficulties, having lost over eight million dollars in the fiscal year just ended. It was at this point that American film studios found the perfect opportunity they've been looking for to finally defeat their one opponent in the market of continental Europe. It was ironic that a film industry born out of the necessity of WWI and Germany's inability to provide American, British or French films in the years between 1914 and 1919 would go on to become Hollywood's number one opponent. Indeed Paramount and MGM offered to subsidize UFA's huge debt to the Deutsche Bank by lending it four million dollars at 7.5 percent interest in exchange for collaborative rights to UFA's studios, theaters, and personnel - an arrangement which clearly worked in the American companies' favor. The result was the foundation of the Parufamet (Paramount-UFA-Metro) Distribution Company in early 1926.
This is only tangential to FAUST but important nonetheless to place the film in its correct historical context. Both as FW Murnau's last German film before he left for Hollywood and as UFA's most expensive production to that date. It is no wonder that within a year of accepting Hollywood as business partners, UFA was already showing losses of twelve million dollars and was forced to seek another loan, when FAUST, a film that cost them 2 million dollars alone and took six months to film only made back half of its budget at the box office. FAUST would go on to be succeeded by Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS as the most expensive German production but it remained FW Murnau's aufwiedersehen to Weimar cinema. He was one of many German film artists and technicians that migrated to sunny California following the Parufamet agreement (Fritz Lang would follow a few years later, having refused Goebbels' offer to lead the national film department for Nazi Germany, along with others like Paul Leni, Billy Wilder, Karl Freund and Ernst Lubitsch).
Weimar cinema wouldn't make it past the 1930's and FW Murnau's career would come to an abrupt end with his death at 42 in a car accident, but FAUST, as the last German production, not only in nationality, but also in style and finesse, definitely deserves its place next to 1922's NOSFERATU in the pantheon of German Expressionism. Frontloaded in terms of spectacle and dazzling visuals, this retelling of Goethe's classic version of Dr. Faust's story is as slow paced and dark as Nosferatu but with the kind of fantastic, mystical and romantic blend that characterized German post-war cinema. A cinema aimed at repressed lower middle-classes which, in the absence of a national identity swept away by war, were now turning to a new cultural identity conscious of the social realities of the times. In that sense, Murnau's Faust is part escapism spectacle, part edifying fable on the corruption of evil and the redeeming qualities of love and forgiveness.
And if the story is overwrought melodrama by today's standards, the magnificent sets constructed by UFA technicians and special effects work stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best from the 20's. Mephisto looming black and gigantic over a town swept by plague is an iconic image etched on the same pantheon wall of German Expressionism as Count Orlok's shadow. The angels of death riding on their horses with beams of light shooting through them combines the dark fantasy of the production design with expressive lighting, the kind of which would eventually become shaped into film noir by directors like Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang. Gösta Ekman as Faust (superbly made-up as an old man to make even Welles green with envy) and Emil Jannings as Mephisto stand out among the cast.
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