Faust Silent Cinema Literary adaptations


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Luciano Berriatúa

Faust (1926), by F. W. Murnau. 105 minutes
Presentation: Luciano Berriatúa

In this film, Murnau erected a plastic monument to the mythical alchemist who made a pact with the devil and who inspired, among other authors, Marlowe and Goethe. Filmed in the well-equipped German studios, he displayed a virtuous panoply of visual tricks that still amaze the viewer today.


After World War I the allies subjected Germany to a siege that cause terrible inflation in 1922. The enormous quantities of economic compensation demanded for war damages and the boycott on the exportation of German products led the country into ruin.

Film was not exempt from this crisis and the largest German production company, UFA, decided to test the only option available: introducing German films into the vast USA market. To do this, they relied on German executives in large studios such as Universal, who agreed to distribute The Last Laugh, directed by F.W. Murnau, in America in 1924. This high-budget film with great technical advances such as camera movements, something very unusual and completely new for the period, large sets in false perspective and the complete absence of intertitles, was precisely designed as a battering ram to penetrate into the difficult American market. The film was a great success in the USA and a few months later UFA prepared two great superproductions in which it put its entire budget for 1925 at stake: Metropolis to be distributed in the USA by Paramount and Faust by Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Faust was an incredible film, with special effects never seen before, a kind of “Star Wars” of the period, a visually beautiful film in which great care was taken with the images, giving one the impression of watching a frieze of paintings in movement. Murnau came from the theatre and making this movie was a great challenge for him, as he tried to match and even improve on the formidable theatrical staging of Goethe’s drama his teacher Max Reinhardt carried out during the 1910s, in which Murnau had performed small roles as an actor. It was one of the most extraordinary films in the history of German film. Although it was initially based on Goethe’s book, Murnau decided to change many things in the script, creating a very unique work in which Margarita and her persecution as an innocent victim became the film’s main focus.

Murnau searched for the ideal actress for this role for months and finally chose Camila Horn, an non-professional adolescent who, in Murnau’s hands, played an emotive Margarita. Emil Jannings, Germany’s most sought-after actor, who had already worked with Murnau as the star of The Last Laugh, played Mefisto and Gösta Ekman, a great Swedish actor, Faust. This film, which fascinated directors like Eric Rohmer, who wrote his PhD thesis about it, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in cinema history and one of the most signficant by F.W. Murnau, whom William Fox considered the best director in the world, hiring him in the USA to direct another very expensive film, Sunrise, about which John Ford went so far as to say that a better film will probably never be made.

Murnau’s premature death in a car accident in 1931, aged just 42, cut short a brilliant career that would undoubtedly have made a great contribution to the nascent talkies.

  1. Luciano Berriatúa

    (Madrid, 1949) es historiador y director de cine. Colabora con la Filmoteca Española dirigiendo restauraciones de cine mudo español y alemán. Profesor asociado en la Universidad París 8 y profesor de guión en la Escuela de Cinematografía y del Audiovisual de Madrid (ECA). Desde 1994 realiza el Catálogo del Cine Español del Instituto de Cinematografía y de las Artes Visuales (ICAA). Autor de largometrajes (El lado oscuro, 2002), cortometrajes (La dama del bosque, 1989; Los gatos de Madrid (dibujos animados), 2005 y, como realizador-director de TVE, la serie Murnau, el lenguaje de las sombras (1997). Ha publicado los libros Las técnicas de dirección de F. W. Murnau (1990) y Los proverbios chinos de F. W. Murnau (1992). En los últimos años se ha especializado en cine digital.