Midway through watching F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Faust, I asked myself “Is this really a horror movie?” It feels like a stretch to do so. The film is undoubtedly a masterpiece of German Expressionism. Murnau, clearly in command of his craft, fills every frame of the film with astonishing images. There is horror and horror imagery in the film. Unsurprisingly, the struggle here is deeply religious and philosophical. This poses a question; can a horror film be one philosophically?
Faust opens with the card “The gates of hell are open and the horrors of the masses plague the earth…”. Soon, we’re greeted by the sight of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding forth on screen. Are we at the end of the world? After that the massive black shape of Emil Janning’s Mephisto towers over everything. He laughs as if he has won but is confronted by an equally enormous Archangel. Their enormous size puts the conflict between good and evil on a cosmic scale. This entity chides Mephisto that good will always triumph over evil. The two cosmic entities make a wager. If Mephisto can irrefutably corrupt one soul, he can control the world.
The soul chosen is that of the alchemist Faust. Faust struggles to cure the plague besieging his home town. A man of learning, he consults every book he has but none provide an answer. None of his times can provide an answer. When even the Bible fails him, he throws all his books into a fire. One book as it burns opens to a passage about how to summon the demon Mephisto who offers power and glory to those who summon him.
The opening 30 to 40 minutes of Faust contains the most obvious horror or horror like imagery. TThese sequences are filled works shadows and smoke. The early shots of Mephisto where black make up covers Emil Jannings’ face and his costume has enormous wings and fur on his body is terrifying. These shots convey the immensity of the demon’s evil. Men in white hoods walk through dark areas collecting dead bodies. Easily the eeriest sequence is after Faust summons Mephisto, the demon appears as an old beggar who simply doffs his hat to the alchemist. Faust tries to away but Mephisto keeps appearing and doffing his cap. Faust, in his desperation to save people, now cannot escape his fate.
It’s after this point, that movie leaves horror film territory and ventures into more of a grand warped romance. Mephisto grants Faust youth after his home town realizes he’s consorted with a demon. With restored youth, Faust travels the world engaging in any and every vice he can. After a time a time though, he returns to his home town. The plague is gone. The smoke and darkness are gone replaced by sunlight. Soon Faust sees a pious young woman named Gretchen. He must have her and as Mephisto is still under his command, demands the demon aid him to win her over.
This section of the film is almost a romantic comedy. Faust pursues Gretchen as a very lovestruck boy. She vocally resists him but ultimately is won over. While these sequences are definitely not meant to be horror, I think there is an underlying evil in these sequences. Mephisto resists helping Faust in his pursuit of Gretchen because of her piety. Still the demon cannot resist the opportunity to sow both chaos and death here. He offers Faust a gold necklace that will give him power over the object of his affection. There’s opportunities for evil to be found in this pious young woman.
Faust, if it is a horror film, is a horror film on philosophical level. The film almost qualifies as a religious horror. Faust is a man tested in his beliefs. His desperation to do good makes him turn to a force he truly cannot control. He fails his beliefs and his morals in various pursuits whether it’s saving people or finding a woman he truly loves. Faust’s failure to realize he’s being used ultimately leads to the doom of Gretchen, her family, and their child. The horror in Faust is a good man thinking he can uses evil forces to do good and failing to see the evil that perpetuates.
There is horror and horror imagery in Faust. The majority of the of the horrors are philosophical. The film explores what a man will ignore if given the opportunity to get what he wants. The answer is that he’ll ignore a lot until it’s too late.