“Faust,” the 1926 silent film shown at this year’s Silent Film Festival “Silent Winter,” stars Emil Jannings in an impressive performance as Mephisto (the Devil). Faust, a learned alchemist, can do nothing after Mephisto delivers the plague to his village. The villagers implore him to help them, but his traditional medicine does nothing to stem the deaths. Disappointed, he burns his textbooks, and as the fire consumes them, he reads about the power of the devil. This leads to a meeting with Mephisto, and Faust makes a pact — his soul to Mephisto in exchange for an end to the plague. Later, Faust makes an even bigger deal with Mephisto to attain eternal youth.
The movie opens with a confrontation between Mephisto and the Archangel, who debate whether it is possible to corrupt the soul of a righteous man. Mephisto accepts a bet from the Archangel — and if he can destroy what’s divine in one man, the earth will belong to Mephisto. Mephisto soon comes to earth to bring pestilence down on Faust’s village. Smoke and fumes reign down as the panicked population sickens; they call upon God and Faust to help them, but the grinning Mephisto holds the power. Jannings’ Mephisto hovers over Faust for the rest of the film, ruining his life and the lives of the wicked, including a lustful witch named Marguerite who sells love potions to smitten teens. Marguerite becomes a key figure in the undoing of her niece, Gretchen (Camilla Horn), a local beauty who catches the attention of Faust.
Faust (Gösta Ekman), in his youthful persona, pursues Gretchen relentlessly while Mephisto uses his power to influence her fall. Under Mephisto’s influence, Gretchen changes from a chaste and religious girl to a lustful lover of Faust. This brings tragic consequences to Gretchen, as Faust commits a murder. A key scene shows the smug Mephisto shouting the murder news out to the sleeping village, as though to announce the change from the divine to the demonic. Faust and Mephisto flee on horseback while dread descends on the village.
The director, F. W. Murnau, creates a magnificent vision of a demonic world full of smoke and fire. The giddy Mephisto first appears as an old man and then transforms into a slick young rabble-rouser with a shiny black cape, a slicked back widows-peaked haircut and a long feather sticking out of his hair. The key theme of the movie, whether it’s possible for the devil to destroy man’s divine nature, is answered emphatically at the end. During the journey, the intense dramatic flow of the story, the spectacular acting and the effective visual presentation keep the audience enthralled until the end.