The 13th Floor

The Terrifying Hellscape of F.W. Murnau’s FAUST

If you know your film history, you know the Universal Horror boom of the 1930s looks the way it does because of German cinematographers like Karl Freund, who brought the darkness with them as they emigrated to America. Alfred Hitchcock also studied the German filmmakers of the ‘20s — his visit to Murnau’s set for THE LAST LAUGH left a lasting impression on the then-neophyte filmmaker. If we trace the Horror aesthetic back to its origins, you will inevitably end with filmmakers like Murnau, Wiene, Lang and Wegener [Side note: Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen and his film HAXAN should also be given similar credit]. The grammar and vocabulary of the horror film was firmly established by these artists.

FAUST was released in 1926 around the world. Director F.W. Murnau shot many takes of each scene — not just because he sought perfection (which he did), but because multiple versions and negatives were needed in order to accommodate global distribution requirements. The story, taken from the famous play by Goethe, centers on a wager between a demonic figure named Mephisto and an archangel; the very fate of humanity will be decided by Faust’s ability to stay pure when offered “power” and “glory.”

Murnau’s leap in technical skill and overall artistry is obvious between his legendary 1922 film NOSFERATU and FAUST. The unchained camera he established with his earlier film THE LAST LAUGH represents not just a technical revelation, but an ideological one. Without size or dimension, filmmakers were limited to realism — which is not a concern in FAUST. The ideas are gigantic and abstract, which is perfectly reflected in the chiaroscuro lighting, impossible set design and expert use of multiple exposures and superimpositions. Diagonal lines and off-center framing — staples of German Expressionism — keep the viewer in a perpetual state of instability. As with other German Expressionist films, the sets and lighting are exaggerated — not simply to promote some personal artistic agenda, but in the service of symbolism. In the case of FAUST, that symbolism represents, at its core, a battle between God and the Devil.

The film begins as the gates of hell are opened and three demonic riders arise. They are clearly puppets, but haunting nonetheless. The success of practical effects like these has always come down to presentation. Sound design wasn’t available yet, but Murnau does use smoke, wind and darkness to make these devils absolutely arresting.

Another indelible image is that of Mephisto (Emil Jannings) as he emerges from abstract nothingness as a truly frightening entity. There is just enough light to register the details — black wings, a clawed hand, horns and glowing eyes. There are few, if any, moments this simple or nightmarish in Horror for the next few decades.

After her illicit affair with Faust, Gretchen is living alone on the streets with her new baby. When she is found half-dead in the snow, her child dead, Gretchen is arrested and she cries out to Faust. To communicate this moment to the audience, Murnau goes big, superimposing a close-up of Gretchen wailing with a traveling shot over trees and mountains. The combination creates a moment full of depth and urgency.

When Mephisto is convincing Faust to agree to the bargain, an image forms in Faust’s mind of anonymous arms reaching up from pure despair, anonymous and begging for his help. Murnau then dissolves to a shot of the masses pleading, then back again to Faust, who then finally concedes to Mephisto’s terms. This is a perfect example of the “collision montage” the Russians were experimenting with only a couple of years earlier. It could not be made any clearer how or why Faust made his decision, and it is communicated only with images. This is the “pure cinema” that Alfred Hitchcock so famously applauded and employed in his own work.

After Faust has signed the contract in his own blood, Mephisto conducts a bizarre and terrifying ritual to make him young again. With Faust unconscious, Mephisto covers his body with a blanket pulled from the fireplace. Mephisto then appears to enliven the fire by breathing into it, but it is he himself who grows larger. Now a 10-foot giant, Mephisto steps away from the fire, towering in black over Faust’s body, and unleashes a hellish fire into the room. Silhouetted in flames, Mephisto revels in his dark wizardry, with glowing eyes and forked tongue wagging.

German Expressionism was a movement designed to represent an irrational and chaotic world. A decade after World War I, the country was just starting to put itself back together, and the arts — as they’ve been known to do — were tasked with manifesting that recovery on canvas, on stage and on film. The worldview in these films is skewed, fragmented and dark… but how else could a nation process and heal after such devastation?

When studying this era of German filmmaking, the natural starting point is THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, because it is the most brazen, distilled example — it is pure style, a skeleton displaying all the mechanics of how a body works. What Murnau does with FAUST is dress that skeleton in flesh and blood, imbuing it with epic, universal themes, and the gravitas of high art. We still have canted camera angles framing diagonal and illogical lines; we still have extreme make-up and costume designs; we still have themes of human frailty and an accentuation of our darkest traits.

FAUST was a major film for Germany’s largest film studio, UFA; it took months to film and was one of the most expensive productions of its time. Murnau used every tool at his disposal to create a singular vision — double exposures, rear projection, miniatures, moving camera, depth of field, angular production design, dramatic lighting, costumes and makeup.

Murnau is flexing his artistic muscles here in an extraordinary display — an effort that would, itself, be eclipsed a year later with his best film, SUNRISE. FAUST may be an old film, with antiquated themes and primitive special effects… but it is also an ambitious artistic achievement years ahead of the curve, and a strong candidate for the birthplace of Horror film aesthetics that have stayed with us for almost a century.