Recently, I watched F.W. Murnau's film adaptation of J.W. Goethe's Faust. It was released in 1926, and although to modern eyes it comes off a bit quaint, it was a blockbuster for its time with a then big-budget cast and special effects. Because it is a silent movie, the expressions and gestures are exaggerated, but that adds to the theatricality of the film. Its use of light, makeup, sets and costumes give the action a surreal quality, enhancing the supernatural subject matter.
The Dr. Faustus legend has its origins in a historical magician who travelled 16th century Germany performing strange feats. It started its literary life as a cautionary tale against the quest for worldly knowledge. Goethe's 19th century version, however, redeems Faust and finds honor in his intellectual strivings. Murnau's take is much less intellectually complex and much more religious than Goethe's, but it too offers its hero salvation.
The themes of the story, throughout its various incarnations, have always interested me. The opposition of scientific knowledge and religious faith is certainly a topic that still has resonance in our allegedly more enlightened times. The fear of man over-reaching for powers presumed the purview of God has dogged our pursuit of medical and technological miracles for hundreds of years. As the science progresses even further, opening up ever-more mind-boggling possibilities — cloning, genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence — we're certainly bedeviled by the same ethical concerns of going too far.
As with the drama upon which it's based, the film opens with a divine wager that echoes the Biblical story of Job. If he can steal Faust's soul, black-winged Mephistopholes is offered dominion over the Earth by his radiant heavenly counterpart. The Archangel looks down on Faust's study, and we're introduced to the doctor as he lectures on the wonder that is man's ability to freely choose between good and evil. That free will is of course soon to be tested.
Emil Jannings' Mephisto has several memorable scenes, despite his repeated mugging for the camera. After the wager, he's shown towering over Faust's village as the black fog of plague billows out from beneath his wings. The townfolk begin to fall to the foul wind, and Faust urgently searches his faith and his books for a cure.
Finding no answers in the Bible, more death as the reward for his labors, and only silence in response to his prayers, Faust turns to Mephisto for assistance. He imagines the legions of hungry and sick he could help with the limitless powers he signs up for, but his best intentions are continually thwarted by Mephisto. The devil can only truly offer Faust worldly possessions and pleasures, none of which satisfy the alchemist's more noble yearnings.
His restlessness leads him back home, and it's here that he meets Gretchen. Their love story fills the film's second half and precipitates its climax. Not to give too much away, but Faust does find redemption through Gretchen, if not a completely happy ending. He finally renounces the gifts Mephisto bestowed on him, affirming Love's power to wash away guilt and undo many wrongs.
The ending may strike some as clichéd, but there is truth in it. The pursuit of worldly knowledge isn't necessarily a good or bad thing. What matters is the intent of that striving. If the goal is personal enrichment, the resulting technology will inevitably cause harm. If the aim is to benefit the greater good, and there is no truer expression of love than that, the science will truly advance humankind.