A reliance on visual power and control is one of the many great assets F.W. Murnau had in his arsenal. He could take characters and charge them, control them, or configure them in a way that would rely solely on the presence of his discernible scenery and chilling stories. Faust is a horror, but not one of cheap thrills and jump scares. Murnau has no time for those and instead wishes to prise the mind of the audience open, breaching their security with themes of death and the role of the individual in a functioning society. With other-worldly presences looming over the life of the eponymous character, the sins of persuasion and desire take their form.
Aspirations and impulses, Murnau believes, should be feared more than the bumps in the night and the dark isolation that comes with a battle between heaven and hell. Had Mephisto (Emil Jannings) succeeded in coaxing out the suffering and darker heart of Faust (Gösta Ekman) then he would take control of Earth. More important than the impact of these actions, Murnau adapts the many ways Mephisto tries to corrupt the kind of heart. It plays on the mind, and often we see Faust is a thoroughly just and good man. He prays for the sins of his village to be admonished, the starvation to stop, and the good times to return. How much are we prepared to sacrifice for that? Murnau toys with such a question and never forgets where this discussion stems from.
That ancient conflict of heaven and hell is struck with simplicity and desire. Murnau notes the key differences between the two, but the similar goal God and Satan present. German Expressionism and the misery the story of Faust provides go hand in hand. They are steeped in such a distaste for the world, but also a desire and a brief glimmer of hope that entertains the idea the world could get better. Hardly likely, but Faust and his mortal friends hold onto that expectation, as God and The Devil pull the strings from behind. Their concern isn’t the happiness or emotions of their puppet, but the implication that whoever he begins to worship has won. Neither are winners when they toy with free will, but such a widely explored topic can be effectively utilised. Murnau knows that to take this story any further would mean confronting an audience with their own beliefs and desires.
He does that with a respectful detail, but also one that is not afraid to have audiences understand their fallibility and their lacking moral strength. We are only human. Love will triumph over the expected sins, apparently. How far we can throw this as a tangible thought is of no real interest or reason to those that watch Faust for its adaptable horrors. It is the lack of love and the feeding of desire that Murnau believes we should fear, and he translates that well throughout this heavy-hitting, well-realised piece of German Expressionism. His expression takes the form of heaven and hell, battling it out. We never consider a third party taking control away from that moral simplicity of right and wrong, but Faust consolidates the other powers that be and reflects on them with a natural, and important scrutiny.