December 12, 1926 [Faust]

Murnau continues to be more in tune with the origins of cinema than any other film-maker. And more than cinema's origins, but our own: He uses the frame as a doorway into childhood—and farther: to “what dreams may come.” In Faust the shadow of Lucifer hangs over the village and exudes its plague-excrement, a Méliès imp not merely popping in and out of cupboards but sloughing off our souls like acid. And Death has never been so palpable, or so beautifully presented.

Murnau’s cinema is closer to the Brothers Grimm than the stage melodramas or exotic epics of others—and I will not resist the cliché: Sitting in the dark, watching Faust, I felt the contrarities of childhood, from storm to snow, absolute freedom to absolute despair. Maurice Tourneur gave us glimpses of this in The Bluebird—Murnau, however, does not talk down to his children, but simply opens his hand to reveal the magic charm that takes us where he will. And as I stare into his palm, I go along. No wonder I can not escape childhood, seeing it in every other picture: I'm as naïve as any little one, as easily mesmerized and drawn from home.

The film begins in despairing scorn, the book thrown into the fire—and retrieved, its smoldering spells compelling Faust into the forest, where the trees lean like conspirators—or guides into the fog, where Faust stands as if suspended, entreating what he thinks is Power—it is, of course, a power he cannot compel, but which compels him. Emil Jannings’ Mephisto sits in silhouette, doffing his cap in greeting, eyes glinting like a jaguar’s everywhere Faust turns.

The effects are perfect, beautiful and terrible. The camera plays tricks, like Mephisto, but the plot is defined by inevitability—like a dream one can only move with, helpless, the limbs numb in the dark.

In other words: What fun this is! In the end, Murnau is not a dour moralist, as oppressive may be Faust’s blood-promise to Evil. There is macabre humor here, and Murnau’s delight in images, the framing of a scene just so, with expressionist shadows like great spider-webs trapping the puny mortals—and it's all a great joy, this terrible journey—and not winking in satire, but bursting with energy. Mephisto’s defeat at the sound of that one word, “Liebe,” may simply seem another sentimental heart-string tugged; but, as the climax of the film, it strikes me instead like William Blake (so often in my mind as I go to the movies; there is something in the confluence of the two I cannot escape—some new “marriage of heaven and hell”? And which is which?), the rays of light flying from the lovers, the eyes turned upward, the film itself seemingly aflame. “Energy is eternal delight,” indeed.

I went back twice more to drink at Murnau’s fiery well, wincing at the bitterness of it, braced by its electric chill. When I become as greedy as Faust I will demand that all movies be like this. Until then, I will sup as I can, and leave room for another course.


  1. Yes a macabre and haunting thing it was...wish I would see it again..I'm reading the play coincidently...oh! those days when I was so rich in time...your essay is beautiful, like the others, you are looking with your own eyes and know how to say it...


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