It’s rare to come upon a movie that is such a masterful tour-de-force. Faust fires on all cylinders, creating a work that’s innovative, artful, and complete.
Faust’s first few minutes are composed almost entirely of complex special-effects shots, showing angels and demons riding through the air. This in a film made in 1926.
We then see a conversation between an angel and a demon, a bet that any mortal can be corrupted. The bet centers on a pure man, the eponymous Faust, who works tirelessly to cure the Black Death. The devil goes to him and offers him a truly devilish bargain.
Here’s where Faust elevates itself above so many other films. We’re so used to obviously lopsided “devil’s bargains” that we forget how clever they’re supposed to be.
The devil offers a 24 hour test of the devil’s every supernatural power. The devil points out all the good he can do: heal the sick, rescue those in peril, stop wars. Faust agrees, and it works! He heals the sick. Throngs come pleading to him. A girl clutching a cross reaches out to him…and you can see the horror in his eyes as he realizes that he cannot touch her. The crowd around sees this, and they realize his limitation. They spurn him. He rushes back to his house, tries to throw himself from the roof, and the devil intervenes: No! Faust agreed to a 24 hour test, not less!
Again, it’s devilishly brilliant. Of course the devil won’t let him off that easily.
The devil then shows Faust the other things he can do: return to youth! A flight to the other side of the world! Beauty and love! Faust, being human, tries it all. And when the 24 hours are over, you can guess how he responds.
And we’re only halfway into the film.
One of the most pleasant attributes of Faust is the clarity of its presentation. The plot moves with singularity of purpose from high to low, from temptation to revelation. You always know where you are, and you never know where you’re going to go.
I won’t spoil the ending; suffice to say it shocked me and felt perfectly appropriate.
Unfortunately, some of the minor actors fall into the over-the-top affectation of so many silent film actors. However, the leads act with solidity and grace. I felt their emotions.