Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with horror milestones from the silent era. Some of them I rate as downright brilliant and are listed high in my favorites of all times ("The Phantom Carriage", "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari") but quite often I also literally have to struggle to stay awake throughout these so-called indestructible masterpieces. Murnau's "Faust" is definitely unique, because I experienced these two opposite sentiments during one film! The opening sequences are breathtaking. Unbelievably and utterly breathtaking, in fact. There's the grim prologue that covers a showdown between the archangel and Satan, with horrid images of the four horsemen and brimstone storms, and subsequently the temptation of the titular character (who sells his soul to Mephistopheles in return for youth),which is nothing short of jaw-dropping! What comes next is truly one of the most genius moments in cinema, namely the evil Mephistopheles towering over a little town and symbolically unleashing a plague on it. I think I must have re-watched that particular 7 or 8 times, simple because it's so stunning. But then something strange and incomprehensible happened. The rest of the film suddenly became tedious, prosaic and unremarkable. The content of young Faust wooing the beautiful Gretchen, while Mephistopheles distracts her deeply religious mother, is honestly rather dull and uninteresting. All the mind-blowing aspects of the opening sequences, such as the special effects and the camerawork of Carl Hoffman, are pushed to the background in favor of the mediocre romance plot. The finale finds Murnau returning to great shape, but the powerful impact of the first 15-20 minutes cannot be reached again.
God and Satan war over earth; to settle things, they wager on the soul of Faust, a learned and prayerful alchemist. During a plague, Faust despairs and burns his books after failing to stop death; Satan sends Mephisto to tempt Faust, first with insight into treating the plague and then with a day's return to youth. Mephisto is clever, timing the end of this 24 hours as Faust embraces the beautiful Duchess of Parma. Faust trades his soul for youth. Some time later, he's bored, and demands on Easter Sunday that Mephisto take him home. Faust promptly sees and falls in love with the beautiful Gretchen, whose liaison with him brings her dishonor. Is there redemption? Who wins the wager?
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