‘DER LETZTE MANN’ and ‘Faust’ were some of the last German-language films F.W. Murnau made before breaking into Hollywood carte-blanche with ‘Sunrise’. Separated by a scant two years in his abbreviated career, they follow complementary paths with utterly inverted affectations. ‘Der Letzte Mann’ came first, telling the tale of a proudly upright albeit working-class and aging doorman who is pushed into early retirement by a vindictive, pocket watch-buffing hotel director. The shock of his dismissal is enough to sap his strength, bend his frame, and snuff out his will. He is consigned to be a bathroom attendant where he muddles through the motions in a daze. His sad effort to disguise this demotion from his family and neighbors fails, and he becomes the object of ridicule and gossip throughout his tenement. His despair is relentless.
Unless, that is, until an “improbable epilogue” bestows upon him a coincidental inheritance that makes him one of the hotel’s wealthiest patrons instead of its lowliest servant. And so Murnau cheats a little, though he readily acknowledges it in the title card, by sending us home with a spoonful of sugar after a merciless browbeating. The dichotomy is a bit jarring, but effective in that it lifts a spotlight from the personal tragedy of the film to shine a harsh light on its societal themes—inequality, schadenfreude, the indifference of wealth, the conquest of professional life over private identity, the aimlessness of poverty—all so central to Germany’s post-WWI experience. Quaking beneath this yoke is the actor Emil Jannings, who was merely 40 at the time, but so powerfully whiskered and completely crippled by his loss that he looks to be more than 60.
The utter absence of title cards—but for the one coy interjection before the epilogue—enhances the severe implacability of his fate. But what would we rather have ‘heard’ said? Everything necessary to this doorman’s experience is communicated as it often is seared into memory—through a single gesture or an unexpected presence, no words necessary. Unencumbered by the interludes of text, the uncommonly dynamic camera of cinematographer Karl Freund (himself a master of everything from ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Dracula’ to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and ‘I Love Lucy’) can focus on the action with a hypnotic intensity. Meanwhile, Murnau’s characteristically spooky use of shadow and in-camera effects fill commonplace cityscapes and hotel hallways with a claustrophobic miasma. ‘Der Letzte Mann’ has its moments of comic posture, but at its core is unyielding truth wrapped up in neurotic gloom—Murnau in a snapshot.
‘FAUST’ would come two years later and completely invert the formula. Where ‘Der Letzte Mann’ told of a proud man brought low and made old in the modern world, the eternal folktale of ‘Faust’ reaches back into feudal Europe to follow an old man of letters who deals with the Devil to become young, powerful, and indulged in his every wish. Whereas the former film was absent of dialogue and pragmatic about its settings (grand in scale, yes, but realistic and not so festively sprawling as, say, ‘Sunrise’), ‘Faust’ is a parade of fantastical scenes and brimming with exclamatory dialogue. Jannings once again appears, but not as the aged Faust, rather the diabolical Mephistopheles with a rictus grin, a sweeping black cloak, absurdly long feather in his onyx cap, and a sheathed saber that is perpetually up. He lugs through the film a comparatively fey Gösta Ekman in the title role and cooks up one nasty turn after another, all under the guise of serving the enchanted Faust.
Though technically boggling and full of iconic frames, ‘Faust’ is far and away the less expertly wrought tale; its twists sometimes borders on Wagnerian melodrama (certainly its astonishing set and costume design are worthy of Bayreuth even now), but lacks the musical muscle to sustain it, and several episodes meander rather meaninglessly before the fantasy comes crashing down. When it finally does the misery is absolute, borne almost entirely by the innocent object of Faust’s affections, Gretchen. Seduced by devilish powers, she is bereft of her maidenhead, her family, her safety, and her child in turn before ultimately her very life is at stake (literally being set aflame). And yet here again Murnau swoops in alongside Faust on the wings of Mephistopheles’ to deliver an ostensibly happy ending to this most dour of downfalls. The devil’s power is thwarted, we are told by the glimmering archangel Michael, by the power of ‘Love’, which has raised up Gretchen and Faust (once again old but recognized by his love) from the burning pyre and unto God’s embrace. Never mind the family and child who died for Faust’s caprice; presumably they are in heaven as well (?). It is an even more disquieting and surreal resolution than ‘Der Letzte Mann’s, despite being presented with the utmost sincerity. Whatever the case, we are lucky that Faust exists as a folktale outside of the traditional realms of Greek tragedy and comedy, for it is too convoluted and conflicted a tale to fit into either camp. And though ‘Faust’ is rather fulsome at times, no director other than Murnau could have done sufficient justice to its macabre pageantry.
Indeed, in both films, Murnau displays his mastery of film direction at a time when many were still finding their basic bearings in the medium. Already in ‘Nosferatu’ but even more so by ‘Der Letzte Mann’, Murnau was adept at the long, venue-changing tracking shots that titillate cinematographers and viewers alike more than 80 years later. This dynamic use of space and the adventurous thrust of his cameras would have been enough to cement a legacy even without consideration of the ingenious stagings and effects in Murnau’s repertoire. Special effects can dominate his pictures, yes, but they are purposeful and relevant—not the excuse-for-an-explosion kind of ostentation of more modern generations. Murnau’s effects were not just for show, but rather to show. He was truly one of the first ‘cinematic’ directors, and these films—two sides of his luminous coin—shall prove that for all generations to come.