Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
August is Hell month at Nightmare in Film Street, and we’re celebrating everything infernal and demonic on film. So for Silver Screams, let’s examine a silent fable of demons, pacts with the Devil, and medieval superstition, 1926’s Faust.
A Mysterious Magic
There is something intangibly magical about a silent film that is difficult to describe. Yes, the most apparent distinction between the sound and silent eras is the lack of a recorded soundtrack. Still, it’s almost as if silent cinema unconsciously made up for its lack of an auditory landscape by painting visuals in greater richness and beauty than has ever been seen on film. With its combination of black and white cinematography (with the occasional tint of blue or sepia), written title cards, and painterly production design style, silent film is uniquely suited to fantasy, folklore, and horror.
No film better exemplifies the unique visual power of the silent era for fantasy and horror than F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926). The film is a visual tour de force, featuring breathtaking effects shot after shot. Horrifying horseback riders gallop across the sky, the Devil towers over a medieval town, releasing a dark cloud of plague and death from his cloak, a circle drawn at a crossroads erupts in flame and projects hovering lights as it summons a demon, the artistic imagery of Faust is non-stop. The film is a testament to the creative daring of Murnau and the innovations of German Expressionism, yet it was a flop at the time and is less celebrated than the director’s other works such as Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise (1927). What’s the story behind this dark cinematic vision of magic and demons, and why was its artistry under-recognized at the time?
The Road to Hell
In 1922, F.W. Murnau helmed one of the most influential horror films of all time, Nosferatu. The film further defined the German Expressionism style into something less abstract than previous cinematic incarnations of the movement. While Nosferatu was atmospheric and stylish in a manner only German Expressionism could achieve, it wasn’t as surreal as earlier films like The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari (1920). Instead, Murnau’s use of lighting, shadow, blocking, and art direction still lent an intangible, nightmarish quality to the film and set the stage for decades of horror filmmaking.
But Nosferatu was not without its controversy. Bram Stoker’s widow successfully sued the studio, Prana Film, for the unauthorized adaptation of her husband’s work. While the studio didn’t survive the case, both prints of the film — and Murnau’s career — miraculously did. Murnau went on to gain critical acclaim with his intimate drama The Last Laugh (1924) before helming one of the most ambitious crossover bets ever made by German Expressionism, Faust (1926).
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“No film better exemplifies the unique visual power of the silent era for fantasy and horror than F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926).”
After witnessing the international appeal of German films like Nosferatu in the Hollywood market, German film studio Ufa saw the potential to crack both local and international box office with a German expressionist film designed with accessibility and entertainment in mind. For subject matter, they chose the enduringly popular German folktale, Faust. The story was a natural choice. After all, it had already been embraced by non-German writers as early as Christopher Marlowe in his 1587 play, and as an 1859 French opera by Charles Gounod. Its a tale of demons, magic, infernal forces, and medieval religion was a perfect showcase for the dark aesthetics and groundbreaking special effects that defined German Expressionism, all with a story that audiences around the world were familiar with.
Faust follows the eponymous aged alchemist (Gosta Ekman), who is unaware he is the pawn in a bet made between an archangel and a demon named Mephisto (Emil Jannings) over the corruptibility of his soul. The demon sends a plague to Faust‘s town, pushing the alchemist into despair over his inability to save lives through either science or faith. In desperation, he summons Mephisto at a crossroads and signs his soul away to gain unlimited powers. After his attempt to use his new powers for good backfires, Faust opts to transform himself into a young man and pursue a life of pleasure. The temptations of Mephisto lead him to fall in love with a virtuous young woman named Gretchen (Camilla Horn), and tragedy ensues.
“Faust is possibly the greatest visual achievement of the silent era, with breathtaking special effects and rich art direction so enrapturing, it still invokes awe through the eyes of a 2020 viewer.”
Murnau was a natural choice to direct, both for his ability to create a visually groundbreaking film, his close working relationship with German silent superstar Emil Jannings, who was naturally cast as Mephisto, and his eager knowledge of international film markets. In fact, Faust would be Murnau’s last German film before moving to Hollywood to direct Sunrise (1927). With Murnau and Jannings lined up, Ufa began to seek out fine American talent to further cement the potential for a hit in U.S. theaters. For the role of the doomed heroine Gretchen, Murnau wanted a Hollywood Star like Mary Philbin or Lillian Gish and John Barrymore for the title role. But ultimately the film was cast close to home, with German actress Camilla Horn and Swedish stage star Gosta Ekman as Gretchen and Faust, respectively.
And yet, despite every effort and the record-breaking amount of money poured into Faust by Ufa, the film was a financial and critical flop. German critics and audiences disliked the deviations from the source material in the story, and a controversy over the script prompted an expensive rewrite of the title cards that were ultimately scrapped last minute. The hopes for crossover distribution were botched by discrepancies in the international cuts. The U.S., German and French versions featured entirely different takes of scenes, with the French version even including numerous bloopers and errors in the release version. Ufa only earned half of the film’s massive budget at the box office, making Faust an early example of the ambitious but troubled box office flop so common today. Yet the film has since gained acclaim as a silent classic, and for good reason. It’s stunning, and difficult to see how 1926 audiences weren’t blown away. In fact, Faust is possibly the greatest visual achievement of the silent era, with breathtaking special effects and rich art direction so enrapturing, it still invokes awe through the eyes of a 2020 viewer.
Visions of Heaven and Hell
Faust is nothing short of a special effects tour de force, evoking a medieval world of the occult, faith, and demonic power at a level yet to be topped. From the opening shot of horseman of the apocalypse-style embodiments of mortal woes galloping across the sky, Faust is one breathtaking visual after another. It’s a testament to the vision of F.W. Murnau and the unique magic of silent film.
The effects are a masterful combination of every trick in the book. Superimposition, in-camera effects, rear projection, matte paintings, models, animation, and every silent film technique in between were incorporated into Faust, and not a single one looks dated. In fact, every effects moment has the feel of a magic show. It’s an illusion, but instead of thinking it looks fake, the modern viewer is left wondering “How did they do that?!?”
“Faust is nothing short of a special effects tour de force, evoking a medieval world of the occult, faith, and demonic power at a level yet to be topped.”
Murnau incorporated his experience as a WWI pilot to add realism to the film’s breathtaking flying sequences, such as the opening confrontation between an angel and demon, when Mephisto takes Faust on a flight across Europe to seduce an Italian noblewoman, and when Gretchen cries out in despair for Faust‘s help and an image of her face travels across the sky, over land and sea, to where her lover is in hiding.
Other scenes were so complex; it’s no wonder the film was so expensive. A simple but incredible moment in which a contract appears on a paper in flame, the fire moving across the parchment leaving words in its wake, took an entire day’s shooting to achieve. It’s a relatively small moment, but it’s these smaller effects that make the film feel like one extended magic trick or a fairy tale brought to life.
The unrelenting visual wonder of the film, combined with its eternally appealing allegorical story, makes Faust a uniquely accessible and entertaining silent film for the modern viewer. It’s now considered a classic of German silent film and hailed as another masterpiece under Murnau’s belt. It makes one wonder what more the director could have achieved in Hollywood, had he not been tragically killed in a car accident in 1931.
Faust stands among films like Haxan (1922) and Metropolis (1927) as examples of the unique power of silent-era special effects. Perhaps it’s the dreamlike quality of the medium, the era’s illustrative approach to art design, or the German expressionist style of lighting, but there is something intangibly beautiful about silent-era special effects that haven’t fully been captured since. Even films like the early sound horrors of Universal, which were heavily inspired by German Expressionism, lack a certain something in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, the magic of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) still stands, but films of the sound era never fully captured that feeling of watching a storybook in motion the way silent films did. And no film embodies this particular style of movie magic better than Faust.
“[…] chock full of enough demonic and frightening imagery to tickle a horror fan’s fancy.”
So to get yourself through particularly infernal August, give Faust a watch. It’s chock full of enough demonic and frightening imagery to tickle a horror fan’s fancy. It’s got a particularly timely plague plotline, and it’s surprisingly hopeful message might be the medicine we all need to get us through this collective hell of a year. There is wisdom, and even a little magic, in the past if we know where to look. And until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on Faust with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!