In the age of cinema the Faustian myth became a play of darkness and light, and this play indeed replaced all the words from Marlowe up to Goethe.

– Helmut Schanze1

If we boil the cinema down to its essentials, a film is little more than an interplay of light and shadow. Few if any directors understood that more thrillingly than Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in his 1926 film of Faust – eine deutsche Volkssage (Faust – A German Folktale). It begins and ends in a Heaven flooded with celestial light. Here a radiant Aryan angel (Werner Fuetterer) with dazzling blonde hair and clad in spotless white is doing battle for the soul of mankind with the swarthy devil Mephisto (Emil Jannings) wreathed in dark clouds and wrapped in the massive black wings of a giant bat. “The clash between the explosive brightness of the archangel and the darkness which surrounds the devil,” wrote Lotte Eisner, “is a piercing vision, apogee of the art of the silent film.”2

Yet for all its overpowering visual razzle-dazzle, Faust has a problematic reputation to this day. The biggest production to date of the Berlin-based UFA studio – until it was dwarfed a year later by Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) – the film lost half its budget on release and was savaged by German critics as a blatant vulgarisation of their most sacred national text. Indeed, the script owes no more to the two-volume verse drama by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1829) than it owes to medieval folk legends or the Elizabethan tragedy Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1592) or the French grand opera Faust by Charles Gounod (1859). It is the living definition of a mash-up, a mongrel text concocted and produced for a mongrel medium – which the cinema, from its inception, has always been.

Critics have been giving Faust the cold shoulder ever since. Jonathan Rigby sums up the standard view as well as anyone:

The result was a puzzling contradiction: a dazzling display of the high artistry of which silent cinema was now capable, but also a bloated pomposity shading from sanctimonious mawkishness into low comedy and finally outright kitsch.3

Nobody has yet denied that Faust is a film that demands to be seen. But is it any more than a glorious mess? The blinding chiaroscuro of the opening gives way to a plague-stricken medieval hamlet in Germany. Here an elderly sage (Gösta Ekman) sells his soul to Mephisto in exchange for the power to cure the Black Death. Pelted with stones for his efforts (the locals think he is a witch), Faust swaps his powers for eternal youth – and gets transported by flying cape to an Italian Renaissance court of well-nigh Fellinian decadence. Then he wishes for True Love and seduces a virginal maiden called Gretchen (Camilla Horn) in a garden of white flowers and frolicking children that seems to glow with a spectral light all its own. The girl has a baby out of wedlock and winds up shivering soulfully in a snowstorm like Lillian Gish at the climax of Way Down East (D W Griffith, 1920).

Each of these episodes has its own distinctive visual style. The result is that Faust can easily seem as chaotic and disjointed as Der müde Tod (Destiny, Fritz Lang, 1921) or Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, Paul Leni, 1924) – consciously episodic films that set out to tell several stories in one – or even the Walt Disney classical music extravaganza Fantasia (1940). We may feel dazzled and disoriented at the same time, and puzzled as to what, if anything, holds it all together. Those echoes of Lillian Gish are hardly an accident. The actress had actually signed to play Gretchen, but the deal fell apart when she insisted on importing her own cameraman (Charles Rosher) from Hollywood. Rumours that the dancer and future Nazi documentarist Leni Riefenstahl was also in the running for the role can be dismissed as yet more unreliable self-mythologizing on Leni’s part.

The core of the film is not Gretchen, in any case, but the subtly homoerotic relationship between Faust and Mephisto that is familiar from so much 19th century fiction. The demon seduces and corrupts the young/old man as Vautrin does with Lucien de Rubempré in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1834) by Balzac or Lord Henry Wotton does with the narcissist hero in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde. (As he transforms him from old to young, Mephisto imprisons Faust’s old ‘self’ in a handheld mirror, a Freudian variant on Dorian Gray’s magic portrait.) He intrudes on every romantic encounter his protégé has – peering lewdly over the canopy of the bed as Faust makes love to an Italian duchess, leering furtively through the branches of a tree as Faust romps with Gretchen. In so doing, Mephisto turns every sexual act into a ménage à trois.

This goes some way towards explaining Thomas Elsaesser’s idea that Mephisto and Faust are “a couple, especially on their extravagant travel adventures, and…the tragedy of Gretchen merely highlights the homoerotic bonding it is meant to camouflage.”4 When the focus shifts to Gretchen in the second half, she takes on the aura of a feminised Christ figure (‘crucified’ in the stocks and jeered at by the mob) and later – once she gives birth to her fatherless child – of a sacrificial and eternally sorrowing Madonna of the Snow. She seems less a love interest for Faust than his tacit female alter ego, one who must suffer in expiation of his sins. Her job is to feel what Faust would feel if he were not blinded and held captive by his twisted and implicitly queer liaison with Mephisto.

For all its dazzling shafts of light and blinding pools of shadow, Faust is ultimately a film of masks and mirrors, a labyrinth of hidden identities and multiple selves. Its puzzling and seemingly infinite variety of styles is an accurate reflection of its perpetually troubled hero. A man whose true nature cannot be known because Faust himself cannot or will not know it. His roots may be mythic and medieval and his most obvious literary model may date from the Romantics. Yet in his essence, this Faust is a very modern man.

Faust – eine deutsche Volkssage (Faust – A German Folktale, 1926 Germany 116 mins)

Prod. Co: UFA Prod: Erich Pommer Dir: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Scr: Hans Kyser, Gerhart Hauptmann Phot: Carl Hoffmann Ed: Elfi Böttrich Prod Des: Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig

Cast: Emil Jannings, Gösta Ekman, Camilla Horn, Wilhelm Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert, Frida Richard, Eric Barclay, Hanna Ralph, Werner Fuetterer


  1. Helmut Schanze, “On Murnau’s Faust: A Generic Gesamtkunstwerk?” in Expressionist Film – New Perspectives (Dietrich Scheunemann ed.) Camden House, Rochester NY, 2003, p. 228.
  2. Lotte H Eisner, Murnau, Secker & Warburg, London, 1973, p.165.
  3. Jonathan Rigby, Euro Gothic: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema, Signum Books, Cambridge, 2021, p. 34.
  4. Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary, Routledge, London & New York, pp. 247-248.

About The Author

David Melville is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature at the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He teaches courses on Michael Powell and Dark Fairy Tales and is currently working on a book about Cinema and Queer Spectatorship.

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