Fresh from the triumphant releases of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau was given carte blanche to direct this epic fable of the supernatural. Freed from the burden of plausibility by the story's fantastic premise, Murnau summoned forth a tempest of cinematic brimstone so that every scene ripples with reckless ingenuity. Utilizing the full resources of the UFA Studios (including elaborate miniature models and experimental special effects), Faust captures the intensity of a medieval universe stepped in religious fanaticism and pagan alchemy. Black-hooded pallbearers lead a torch-lit procession through a plague-stricken village literally cloaked by the wings of Satan. Crowded landscapes materialize and vanish in wisps of smoke, daemonic creatures soar through the heavens and earthly beings are tormented by the vaporous spirits that permeate the dungeon-like homes and Caligari-esque rooftops of this shadow world. In the eye of this infernal maelstrom is the great Emil Jannings (Othello), who sets off the film's sound and fury with a diabolically engaging performance, making Faust (in the words of the New York Times) "A radiant jewel...a masterpiece!"
F.W. Murnau's last German production before leaving for Hollywood is a visually dazzling take on the Faust myth. Pushing the resources of the grand old German studio UFA to the limits, Murnau creates an epic vision of good versus evil as devil Emil Jannings tempts an idealistic aging scholar with youth, power, and romance. The handsome but wan Swedish actor Gosta Ekman plays the made-over Faust as a perfectly shallow scoundrel drunk with youth, and the lovely Camilla Horn (in a part written for Lillian Gish) is the young virgin courted, then cast aside, by Faust. The drama falters in the middle with a tedious courtship and bizarre comic interludes, but the delirious images of the opening (Jannings enveloping a mountain town in his dark cloak of evil) and the high melodrama of the climax (Horn desperately clutching her baby while crawling, abandoned and lost, through a snowstorm) triumphs over such shortcomings. The sheer scale of Murnau's epic and the magnificent play of light, shadow, and mist on his exquisitely designed sets makes this one of the most cinematically ambitious, visually breathtaking, and beautiful classics of the silent era. --Sean Axmaker