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Let’s Make a Deal: Faust on Film

By Max Nelson on November 14, 2013

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The Faust legend—freshly reinterpreted in Aleksandr Sokurov’s film, which opens Friday at Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center—first appeared in print in late 16th-century Germany by way of a handful of anonymously authored booklets. Over the centuries, its core premise—an ailing scholar sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for (depending on the teller) youth, wisdom, power, or genius—has been refracted and tinted through a series of great literary interpreters, from Marlowe to Mann. The most influential re-telling is arguably Goethe’s, which transformed the tale into an allegory for the limits of reason, the risks of passion, and the struggle to believe. In the 20th century, the story would go on to inspire a rich tradition of filmmakers, from silent masters to European expats and Russian mystics. We’ve highlighted five of our favorites below; tell us yours in the comments section.

Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)

Most variations of the Faust legend work, at least on one level, as morality plays. Their drama is largely internal, a conflict between the Faust figure’s spiritual commitments and his mortal desires. Each one asks something along the lines of “What on this earth might someone want badly enough to sell away his soul?”—and each gives a slightly different answer. F.W. Murnau’s Faust, which after 87 years remains one of the most visually sophisticated films ever made, casts the story in different terms: here, Faust is a kind of Job figure, pushed to defy God out of duty to his fellow men. (He makes a pact with the Devil to save his city from the plague.) But rather than shift the conflict from Faust’s conscience to the external world, Murnau makes a bid at conflating the two. Faust’s images feel at once like rough-textured physical things and mental emanations: plague-addled crowds surrounding dancing jesters and doomsday prophets, the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping mid-sky, fog-shrouded black magic ceremonies, and—in one extraordinary shot—an enormous Mephisto (Emil Jannings) spreading his wings over a city and blocking out the sun. And that’s just the first 20 minutes. Until Sokurov’s adaptation, this was undoubtedly the screen Faust that came closest, in scope, tone, and emotional effect, to Goethe’s brand of high tragedy.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941)

At the peak of his acting career in his native Germany, William Dieterle had played Marguerite’s brother in Murnau’s Faust. Thirteen years later, after receiving a directing offer from Warner Brothers and emigrating to the States, he made this masterful adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s Faustian short story about a poor farmer tempted into a day in court with Lucifer. Along with The Night of the Hunter, The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka “All That Money Can Buy”) is one of the great cinematic fusions of European style and American folk narrative, with a career-highlight performance by Walter Huston as the gleeful, infernal “Mr. Scratch.” Working with DP Joseph August, Dieterle developed a highly refined Expressionist style in which stark light-dark contrasts share space with subtler, cross-hatched shading effects—making a kind of cinematic woodcut.

Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

Ray Milland gives his Devil figure an air of suave, slicked-back menace in John Farrow’s noir-to-the-bone morality tale about an honest district attorney seduced by the prospect of a governorship. Like The Devil and Daniel Webster, Alias Nick Beal re-casts the Faust legend as a quintessentially American parable—but whereas the earlier movie’s America was a lost paradise of small agrarian towns and righteous politicians, this one’s a shady urban landscape of mist-drenched docks and smoke-filled living rooms. The movie playfully amps up the contrast between the pragmatic, down-to-earth business of state politics and the decidedly otherworldly origins of Milland’s shady fixer, with his sudden disappearances, nervous withdrawals from priests, and ominous references to the island of lost souls. But when, thanks to cinematographer Lionel Lindon, those foggy docks fade into an almost completely abstract swirl of dim blacks and deep greys, the line between the natural and the supernatural suddenly doesn’t seem so sharp.  

Beauty and the Devil (René Clair, 1950)

Beauty and the Devil René Clair

René Clair’s Faust adaptation opens with an expectation-defying casting move: is that gravel-voiced, unkempt Michel Simon, famous for his gloriously unhinged performances in (among others) Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Vigo’s L’Atalante, playing the cooped-up tenured professor who lives in a mansion and takes his dinner every night at six? Sure enough, a handsome demon (Gérard Philipe) soon visits Professor Faust with an offer to swap bodies, and Simon winds up in the role he’s meant for. (The Devil, as always, gets the best lines.) Simon is a giddy, irrepressible screen presence, whether grinning maniacally from around corners or invading the dance floor of a society ball with his crude, unruly imitation of a waltz. But the film itself, which was made in 1950, is a bitter reflection on the legacy of fascism in Europe. For this Faust, romantic love and renewed youth aren’t enough: he wants power, and here—as in most tellings of the Faust legend—the power in question turns out to be its own kind of enslavement.

Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2011)

The Russian filmmaker’s dazzling version of Faust shares much with its resilient source text—the same schizophrenic balance between the crude and the sublime; the same bustling, harried pace; the same glorious visual excesses; the same sense of sex as a means both of affirming life and courting death. But where Goethe’s scholar struggles to free himself from the chilly, theoretical demands of science and reason, to “plunge into the warp and woof of time” (as one translation has it), Sokurov’s central figure has the opposite problem. Life, in this Faust, is a big, sticky stew of noise, flesh, and sensation, something to escape from rather than into. (The second shot is of Faust messily digging around inside a cadaver). Salvation comes in the form of a few privileged moments of rapture—chief among them a jaw-dropping silent interlude between Faust and Gretchen, the object of his half-idealized, half-lustful desire, that takes place in a radiant, over-exposed, stretched-out dreamworld—but Sokurov suggests that the only permanent escape lies in the brute exercise of power: power over others, power over death, and, ultimately, power over the Devil himself.

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