The demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) is ambitious in his devious manner, and wishes to gain even more power than he already has, so approaches the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) with a proposition. He suggests a wager where if he manages to corrupt the soul of a supposedly pious man, then he will be awarded the ultimate power over the world and its denizens, is that really too much to ask? The Archangel agrees to this bet, and Mephisto makes his choice of soul, that belonging to Faust (Gösta Ekman), an alchemist whose drive to turn lead into gold the demon believes is the ultimate example of hypocrisy, so he should be easy pickings for your average entity from Hell. All he has to do is set the plague on Faust's town of residence, to set the wheels in motion...
Faust was the reward director F.W. Murnau was given after the international success of The Last Laugh, his classic melodrama which also starred Emil Jannings, the first man to win the Best Actor Academy Award at its inaugural ceremony. Unfortunately, all his excellent work in the field of silent movie acting where he was really at his best was utterly overshadowed by his later political choices, making it all too apt that he should be playing a devil in one of his most memorable roles as he threw his weight behind the Nazis when sound came along and his thick accent stopped his fame in English-speaking territories in its tracks, though he was able to enjoy the huge success of The Blue Angel in that era.
Oddly, possibly because nowadays it's more or less the dedicated film buffs who watch silents, Jannings' best performances remain appreciated for their artistry and his abhorrent later leanings are overlooked, and it was true to say he was very memorable here in one of the definitive portrayals of the embodiment of evil on the big screen. That could be down to the fact we're supposed to hate the wickedness of Mephisto, though that doesn't quite explain why Jannings' other surviving classic roles are still sought out by both scholars and film fans alike; it is difficult to weigh up his propaganda films of World War II against them, however, without finding him seriously wanting, and it's little wonder he spent his final years rejected and in isolation, apparently bitterly rueing the way the war turned out.
On the other hand, our Faust was a lot more laudable, as Gösta Ekman remains one of Sweden's most respected theatre actors; he dabbled in films as well, and this title part was probably his most celebrated, not least because thanks to terrific makeup and convincing body language he was able to play him as both a young and old man, Faust's desire to be young again part of his bargain with Mephisto. Sadly, in a roundabout way this film ended up killing the star, since he was such a workaholic that when he went to Berlin to make this, he was introduced to cocaine to keep his energy levels up, and on becoming addicted, he found his health suffering until he died at the relatively young age of forty-seven. Again, knowing that places a pall over watching him as Faust, no matter his skill.
And Murnau would die young too, having moved to Hollywood to escape the rise of the Nazis as so many of his countrymen did (actor turned director featured here William Dieterle would do the same) and meeting his fate in a car accident whose exact details have been the subject of scurrilous rumour ever since. His obsessiveness on Faust, where he would spend whole days repeating the same take over and over because he wasn't satisfied, was probably a reason it ended up as visually exacting and striking as it did, though the early stages were better, with many superb images to convey the sense of Goethe's play where the battle between good and evil was the ultimate game in the universe. Just a pity once Faust falls in love, the character of the film took a turn for the less interesting, with more twee, fairy tale appearances, though it recovered for the finale which saw the sacrifice leading to the conclusion that love was all you needed, again rather pat and convenient for the good guys, but this was a fable with a happy ending, as hard won as that was. Best to take in the absorbing design and brooding atmosphere of the most successful sequences, among the most impressive in silent cinema.