Director F.W. Murnau had already caused a stir in the film community with his 1922 horror film Nosferatu, which had run into legal issues with the estate of Bram Stoker but survived attempts to obliterate it from existence. In the intervening four years until this film he had proven himself a force to be reckoned with thanks to The Last Laugh (1924) and Tartuffe) (1925). In fact, Faust would turn out to be his final German production (he was already been courted by Fox but had to deliver one more film to Ufa) before heading off to Hollywood where he made an auspicious entrance with the Oscar-winning Sunrise (1927) and helmed three more acclaimed films (including the sadly lost 4 Devils) before his untimely death in 1931 in a traffic accident.
Murnau's experience as a combat pilot in World War I unexpectedly served him well here as he used his experiences in the air to conjure up striking images of a devil-controlled flight over the globe and surreal images of a holy battle in the clouds. Also lifting elements of Christopher Marlowe's English version of the Faust story as well as Gounod's opera (which was the original version Murnau wanted to film), the director courted such actresses as Mary Philbin, Greta Garbo, and Lillian Gish in the role of Gretchen, ultimately choosing Lil Dagover's leg double from Tartuffe, Camilla Horn. According to her 1981 autobiography, the actress was subjected to an unusually grueling shoot, often chained or tied up for hours or subjected to a harsh salt storm under powerful wind fans.
Likewise, an American actor was considered for the title role with John Barrymore bandied about as a stronger contender. Instead the role went to Swedish theater actor Gösta Ekman, who went on to star in the original 1936 version of Intermezzo. However, there was no question from the start that Mephisto would be played by Emil Jannings, whose starring performance in The Last Laugh is one of the most impressive of the entire silent era. His magnetic, diabolical turn here provides the film with some of its most indelible imagery, especially his early appearance looming over the smoking town landscape or answering Faust's crossroads summoning with eyes eerily glinting in the darkness. Jannings would go on to star in the classic 1930 Josef von Sternberg film The Blue Angel and even won the first Oscar for Best Actor; contrary to suppositions by Susan Orlean, he was not actually beaten in votes by write-in candidate Rin Tin Tin. Unfortunately his thick German accent would send him back to his native country where he embraced the rise of Nazism, a decision that would obviously lead to the end of his career well before his death in 1950. Among the rest of the cast, future director William Dieterle, a regular Reinhardt colleague who would go on to helm his own version of the Faust story with The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), also turns up here playing Gretchen's brother.
In order to crank out the number of prints demanded both at home and abroad, several different negatives of Faust were assembled with the German version considered to be the superior one compared to the more widely-seen English export one assembled from different takes. In fact, many of the export takes were shot by a second cameraman on the set using different angles, often resulting in major differences between the two. The English version even used custom made books and text inserts to create a film as friendly as possible to international audiences, though today it's the German version (the primary one in circulation since 2006) that has rightly been regarded as not only a classic but a high water mark in Murnau's career.
By Nathaniel Thompson