German movies of the 1920’s receive a remarkably poor press in conservative circles. Some critics regard them as little more than obvious reflections of Weimar decadence, as some of the lesser films doubtless are. Sometimes even the ubiquitous use of expressionist technique is presented as definitive proof that the mental derangement of souls in pain means that the art itself is deranged—a genuinely confusing subject with object. German expressionism in film is often merely the best kind of indigenous romanticism (the tradition of Novalis or Hoffmann) reacting to the psychological breakdown of its own culture. Few American directors have even tried this territory, with the notable exception of Frank Borzage. If these misunderstandings were not enough, an influential work of criticism has long dominated any counterthesis broached. That silly tome is one of those volumes summarizing its argument in its title, From Caligari to Hitler. How can anyone argue with that? The only problem is that this thesis is largely hogwash, and, the benighted persistence of this view is, at least in part, residue of prejudice against German culture in the wake of the World Wars, which is yet another confusion of cause and effect. The Nazis, having twisted to ill purpose anything worthwhile that German culture has given the world, perverting its mythology among its less noted crimes, have tainted to this day in many minds all the memory of Germanic culture, except for some pre-twentieth century composers. I would, for example, defy anyone over a certain age aware of the place even to think of Bayreuth devoid of a lingering trace of the swastika floating somewhere at the corners of his mind.
Contrary to the nonsensical accusations that these films are full of rampant degeneracy, its two greatest filmmakers were a Catholic convert (Fritz Lang) and, more to the point here, a cultural Catholic—F.W. Murnau—who, although not without some personal moral flaws, kept his quirks entirely out of his art. Both men in their ways devoted themselves to translating the marchen to film. Marchen poorly translates into English as “fairy tale.” The stories collected by the brothers Grimm were marchen. They are tales of Fairie, those terrifying woods where Hansel and Gretel discovered themselves. This was the same place where in 1300 a certain Italian found himself in the middle of his life when the right way was wholly lost to him. This is also the world of Lang and Murnau.
Murnau recaptured the Catholic emphasis of the vampire tale in his 1922 version of, and artistic improvement upon, Bram Stoker’s Dracula—Nosferatu (The Undead). Stoker only half understood what he was creating, but Murnau’s semi-pirated edition places that creepy count squarely in his medieval context.
By 1926, Murnau’s cinematic art had become so beautiful to the eye and so penetrating in its storytelling style that in my opinion his work is still the standard by which to judge other films. Such a work is his Faust, one he specifically called a marchen. Elements of his take on the story are almost as old as that legendary Manichean Faustus St. Augustine debated. Some aspects of the tale derive inevitably from Goethe, mostly in the Gretchen love story—but sans Enlightenment posturing, smugness, and shallowness. Some qualities from Marlowe’s play flit around the edges of Murnau’s theme as well.
St. Augustine also has a bearing on this film in a way that might apply to any marchen generally, but here becomes the direct theme, one that is about “sehnsucht”—that intense longing never satisfied in this world, the ache for completeness that never attains real completion short of the afterlife. Tellingly, the only English word approximating sehnsucht is “numinous,” itself a sesquipedalian, Latinate word. Most of C.S. Lewis’ imaginative works treat this subject directly and he tried to approximate its meaning by extending the definition of the word “joy” to include the concept. Thus was Lewis surprised by joy. Murnau films represent as well as the visualization of what Lewis called the Northernness that so engulfed him and the other Inklings, as it had George MacDonald before them. St. Augustine famously encapsulated and anticipated the best romantic German art, and all art that plays even about the edges of sehnsucht, “Our hearts are not at rest until they rest in Thee.” This is hardly identical to the Liza Minnelli-Cabaret world those who would deride this kind of film try to conjure.
In a prologue reminiscent of epic invocation, Michael the Archangel contends with Mephisto, permitting him to tempt Faust. If the devil wins the venerable old doctor’s soul, the world becomes his. In a startling image, Mephisto literally enwraps the world beneath his wings and begins his hellishness by spreading the plague to a poor player. The fear of the disease panics his street audience and triggers terror throughout the town. Faust, a most highly regarded member of the community, becomes aware of the situation, and the people beg him to help. He demurs at first, but Mephisto suddenly appears, offering him a trial day—the afflicted will be cured, but only for a day unless Faust makes the inevitable pact. Mephisto further offers what most tempts the scholar, pursuit of knowledge and youth. Thus they will meet at a crossroads that night where a magic circle weaves. Old Scratch makes the inevitable offer of twenty years of fulfilled desire. Faust already has an eye to young Gretchen. By the way, the actor who plays her brother is the same Wilhelm (William) Dieterle who fifteen years later was to direct in Hollywood The Devil and Daniel Webster. As usual with temptation, the initial desire is an apparent good, to cure plague. No lasting good, however, ever comes by evil means.
After some healings, the observant crowd realizes Faust is a cursed soul when he is unable to act in the presence of a crucifix. They begin stoning him. Faust wants out, but the trial day is not yet over. Needless to say, temptation now begins in earnest. By means of a little evil magic, before time is up (and omitting some details) Faust veers to the brink seducing the Duchess of Parma, just as Mephisto lets him know time is about to expire. Faust then does what any red-blooded sinner in a hurry to get back to sin usually does in such a spot; he sells his soul for a hot date and the prospect of many more and for lots of power to boot. Ah, the human condition.
My own temptation here, until I caught myself, is to continue telling the whole story. This tendency alone, again according to Lewis, is prima facie evidence that we are dealing with a mythopoeic world. He observes that myth itself resides in the very pattern of events and cannot be separated from it. This remains true whatever the artistic merits of the work. George MacDonald, that supreme master of mythic creation, was sometimes a rather pedestrian stylist. Does it really matter in his case? And MacDonald acknowledged he drew his greatest source of inspiration from where? Novalis, marchen, and the Augustinian Christianity that fostered them.
In Faust, the movie, added to all that corresponds to marchen in visual realization, which in part means self-consciously painterly (as only a painter can be painterly), Murnau delights in his realization, that which looks like something come to life on a canvass. Perhaps the bulk of good German art is self-conscious and highly controlled? May be. Faust is certainly an exhibit for making such a case. Each aspect of its design was predetermined and arranged on studio stages, including a vast miniature nearly the length of a football field representing with a moving camera tracking an Alpine vista, which represents the journey of Mephisto and Faust to Parma. Murnau worked with the technicians to design a small roller coaster with camera attached to film the trip. This method may sound like a cheap gimmick in the telling; the result is breathtaking in the viewing, inspiring a sense of wonder in any receptive audience—the sense of wonder that is the domain of marchen.
Some years ago, a conservative friend basically accused me of torturing Murnau’s film to fit a Christian reading and presented an alternate interpretation that made the movie little more than another pop culture version of Goethe’s humanism. This is at least one step up from viewing it as an example of Weimar decadence, I suppose. True, Faust and Gretchen are redeemed because of love, and even probably Murnau and the UFA producers allowed for a script that can possibly be read that way. Yes, love redeems them, but only after genuine tragedy and the quite real repentance of both parties, both of whom pay for sin with a truly atoning death. The love that saves them is not eros, but agape. Salvation comes from love, but even our casual attention to detail reveals that the redemptive love comes from God, the God Who is Love. God thus saves Faust and Gretchen through their deaths. This kind of presentation is hardly the Enlightenment hash du jour its negative critics would claim.
Murnau even lards the comic relief with sound theology, no matter what his conscious thought, although, like humor from past times, a little goes a long way. Nothing changes so fast and differs more from country to country than what people find funny. At least those scenes, like many parallels in Shakespeare the groundlings found uproarious, may offer us a little time to catch our breaths until we return to the main action. That said, the comic relief contains much Catholic theology no matter how little of the humor translates. But even these digressions serve as light counterpoint to the love story. Faust has become weary, suffering from real ennui, certainly not the phony kind. The weariness incites in him a restless desire for he knows not what. After finding Gretchen, he falls in love (not lust) and tries to reform for he has found that love which takes him out of himself, perhaps including all his pre-Mephisto life as well. Meanwhile, that hellish spirit is hardly elated by this turn of events. While Faust courts his beloved, Mephisto plays up to the local crone who dabbles in love potions. We cut back and forth from the young couple surrounded by playing children to the devil and his would-be witch, who parody the principal action. Hell cannot create; it can only mock.
I should mention another feature of Murnau’s commendable understanding, one of a nature rarely if ever captured in a presentation of the Faust legend, and that is his take on sinful satiety. The one problem in Christopher Marlowe’s otherwise towering masterpiece is that we follow Faustus and Mephistopheles about Europe with each scene merely repeating Faust’s love of naughtiness. This action needs trimming in every presentation to prevent boredom settling in. In Goethe, can sin really be said to exist? Probably not. In both instances, dramatic tension dissolves.
I have seen performances (at least of the Marlowe) in which the theologically illiterate take an illogical leap over Faust’s debaucheries and assorted evils because they didn’t know what else to do. Nothing in these performances really happens between the selling of the soul and Mephisto’s claiming of it at the climax. Some major scenes and no real drama. Many today would desire to see the evils without the drama, but that is another discussion. Murnau handles the artistic problem in much the same way as Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray—skipping the intervening years begun with the wish that forever changed his life, and proceeding to the dramatic action caused by the maturity of the resultant evil. We understand that evil. We are human, which means we are capable of, and tempted to, real horrors. We merely have to look into our hearts to imagine the extreme moral depravity both Dorian and Faust embrace. Murnau leaves us no wiggle room to watch Faust without causing a partial self-examination. There but for the grace of God . . .
I have barely touched the surface of this masterpiece, and over the years have found new and deeper meanings reveal themselves at each screening. I heartily recommend being sure to find the version originally edited by Murnau which was intended for viewing by German audiences; old dupes have circulated for decades, most prints having lost much of the detail important to this work. Also, the entire movie played in America with different and inferior editing—not by Murnau. Kino has released a beautiful two-disc version. This one is worth a little extra dough if you love films.
An epilogue about the epilogue: When agape finally wins, the Archangel Michael at last announces to the defeated Mephisto that the prince of the heavenly hosts has defended Faust in battle and in the instance of his case has cast down into hell the one who roams about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
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