Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe, known forever to gods and mortals as F.W. Murnau, is a towering figure in cinema’s pantheon. Unfortunately, Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Sunrise (1927)—the masterpiece he made upon his arrival in Hollywood—have come to overshadow the rest of the director’s equally impressive oeuvre, especially Faust, his wondrous and haunting final film made in Germany.
Another director, Ludwig Berger, had been planning to make Goethe’s cautionary fable from his own script, with Conrad Veidt as Mephisto. But Emil Jannings, who had followed his triumph in The Last Laugh with the title role in Murnau’s Tartuffe, wanted the iconic part—and to continue working with his beloved director. Then as now, movie stars often got their way. In this case, the audience was the primary beneficiary.
Murnau convened a trusted and familiar cadre of collaborators, beginning with art director Robert Herlth. Carl Hoffmann, whom Murnau had worked with on his first films in 1919 and 1920, took the key position of cameraman after Karl Freund suffered a broken leg. The poet and filmmaker Hans Kyser adapted the story of a bet between an angel and Mephisto. The devil makes his opportunistic play when a desperate scholar named Doctor Faust loses his faith during the plague. The two strike a deal, but the devious Mephisto soon tempts Faust into another transaction that, ultimately and inevitably, has the direst implications.
A renowned international cast was led by the incomparable Jannings, with the Swedish star Gösta Ekman as the title character. In the role of Gretchen (known in English as Marguerite), Camilla Horn made her screen debut in the part originally intended for Lillian Gish. The American star’s insistence on bringing her own cameraman from Hollywood, Charles Rosher, had been a deal-breaker for the studio. (Rosher had already left the U.S. for Berlin and ended up spending the shoot watching from the sidelines and answering Murnau’s questions about making films in Hollywood. The experience paid off the following year, when Rosher and Karl Struss shot Sunrise and shared the first Academy Award for cinematography.) Valentin is played by one Wilhelm Dieterle, who later established himself as a prolific contract director in Hollywood (Fog Over Frisco and Dark City, among countless titles) as William Dieterle.
Years later, many of these artists could vividly recall the myriad ways that working with Murnau was special. Herlth, who collaborated with Murnau on four films, remembered meeting with him to discuss a sequence for The Last Laugh. When Herlth asked about the placement of doors and furniture, Murnau replied with an ironic smile. “A plan? That would be like in the theater. The cinema is a matter of projection. You either see something or you don’t; all that matters is the impression.”
That profound understanding of visual storytelling, in addition to a practiced talent for directing actors, was apparent in Murnau’s revisions of Kyser’s script for Faust. For one key juncture in the story, Kyser wrote, “Without a moment’s hesitation, Faust snatches the pact away from him, goes to a table, and picks up a pen.” Here is Murnau’s improvement: “Faust looks at him fixedly. Then he takes the pact from him as if hypnotized, and still as if under the effect of hypnosis, gropes behind him for the pen.”
Murnau was not a technical wizard; he relied on his collaborators to devise equipment and effects to achieve what he wanted to see onscreen and rarely, if ever, looked through the camera. Some critics claim that his screenwriters, cameramen, and set designers, therefore, deserve the lion’s share of the credit for his films. In her passionately and admirably researched Murnau, published in Paris in 1964 and translated into English in 1973, Lotte H. Eisner maintains that the director’s annotated screenplays provide proof that he was the guiding force and overriding visual architect of his works.
Murnau had chosen his collaborators for their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and dedication, and they consistently came up with creative ways of achieving the necessary visual effects. For a shot of the archangel waving his flaming sword in the heavens, Herlth built a gadget that shot steam out of several pipes. When the vaporous columns were lit against a backdrop of clouds, they looked like rays of sunlight. Murnau was so delighted with the effect that he lost track of time, until he realized Werner Fuetterer was so exhausted from rehearsing that he couldn’t lift the sword.
Herlth, the art director, never forgot a succinct lesson that Murnau taught him one day. “Art consists in eliminating,” Murnau said. “But in the cinema it would be more correct to talk of ‘masking.’ For just as you and [co-designer Walter] Röhrig suggest light by drawing shadows, so the cameraman ought to create shadow too. That’s much more important than creating light!”
Murnau understood that cinema consisted of light (and shadow) and movement (by actors and objects but also by the camera). The detail-oriented director knew what he wanted; after all, he had labored during pre-production to resolve the thematic, plot, and aesthetic questions. Getting the shots to work in production, however, was a different matter.
“We had to keep renewing the sheets of parchment for Faust’s pact with the devil, which had to be written in letters of fire,” assistant art director Arno Richter recalled. “Just before each take the parchment had the letters printed on it with a sort of stamp which applied threads of asbestos and a liquid which ignited spontaneously and immediately. This shot was taken over and over again for a whole day: the sheets of parchment kept catching light too soon or burning too fast. They were heaped up in hundreds outside the studio. But Murnau persevered until at last he got the pact with the devil successfully filmed.”
It was an era of experimentation and problem solving; in some ways, the set was a laboratory. Richter remembered, “Sometimes the studio would be full of stifling smoke: old film was being burnt in the doorway to create a denser atmosphere, and without the slightest concern about fire!”
Murnau was a tireless perfectionist, and there were long days when laughs were scarce. Indeed, the stunning scene in Faust where Mephisto brings the plague on the city was only achieved with significant suffering on the part of the crew and Emil Jannings. Outfitted with wings and feathers, the actor had to stand for hours on an iron grill above three massive fans blowing his cloak 12 feet in the air. At the same time, Jannings was inundated with soot (the visual manifestation of the plague) propelled across the set—and beyond—by another high-powered blower.
“What we, Murnau’s team of collaborators, were afraid of then was that there was nothing new left for us to achieve,” Herlth later recalled. “But in the course of making Tartuffe and Faust we came to realize that we were only at the beginning.”
In many ways, despite his great successes to that point, so was Murnau. His relocation to Hollywood and then to Tahiti to make Tabu: A Story of the South Seas heralded more masterpieces to come. We still mourn his premature death, in 1931, on a winding coastal road in Southern California.
Presented at Silent Winter 2013 with live music by Christian Elliott on the Mighty Wurlitzer