Why the legend of the man who sold his soul to Satan is one of the most resilient narratives in film.
Buckle up kiddos we’re going to talk about Satan.
More specifically “Faust,” the centuries-old German legend that asks: what could someone possibly want so badly that they’d sell their soul? For some the answer is fame, fortune, genius—for others, it’s a simple donut. But fundamentally “Faust” has always entertained a deliciously simple concept: someone trades their soul to the Devil in exchange for some short-term advantage and pays the price.
The source material has refracted over the centuries under the authorship of a host of literary nerds. Least of all Goethe, whose re-telling is both the cornerstone of German Romantic literature and arguably the most influential permutation of the myth. Goethe’s rendition is often cited with renewing modern interest, inspiring, among other things, a rich tradition of filmmakers to cement Faust as one of cinema’s oldest and most persistent narratives.
Faust served as the subject of over two dozen films before 1913. And between 1896 and 1904, cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès produced at least five versions of the story, expanding the theme to reference Faust’s romance with Marguerite, his pact with the Devil, and his damnation. Around 1903, Méliès, who acted in his own films, transitioned from the role of Faust to Mephistopheles; from the tempted, to the tempter. In this way, the mischievous pyrotechnics that shoot from Faust’s sword in 1904’s Damnation du Docteur Faust, become as much Méliès’ doing as Satan’s.
On some level Faust operates as a morality play, sharing an accessible visual language suitable to the limitations of early film. There is very little doubt as to who Méliès’ dastardly horned figure is or what his intentions may be. To this point, the visual spectacle of diabolic magic—the metamorphoses, teleportation, and infernal machinations—is a natural fit for Méliès, and for film more broadly. Méliès shines when he most confidently champions cinema as an art form rather than a fairground attraction; when in Faust aux enfers (1903), Mephistopheles triumphantly extends his bat-wings over a group of reveling dancers and demons as smoke billows below. The skeletal, galloping steed in The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) is a close second.
There are, at my last somewhat subjective count, over eighty films from the silent film era to the present which build off the Faust theme. Below, I’ve highlighted some of my favorites. Tell us yours by whispering into the accursed fluffy ear of Black Phillip, or in the comments section.
Faust, (1926) dir. F.W. Murnau
“A tiny drop of blood! Blood makes a quite extraordinary ink!”
F.W. Murnau’s Faust is one of the most sophisticated films ever made and watching it I’ve never felt closer to Beelzebub. The film’s visual language might as well have been articulated by Satan himself: it’s bold, atmospheric, stylish, crude, sublime, mystical, and utterly bewitching. Just as Emil Jannings’ Mephisto dazzles Faust with splendors so too are we seduced by Murnau; jaw-dropping lighting, ingeniously nightmarish landscapes, marvelous special effects, and Carl Hoffmann’s clever cinematography sweep us away into a sinfully indulgent cinematic spectacle. The narrative is spurred by a cynical Job-like wager that prods Faust to make a pact with Satan in order to save his village from a plague. As with Goethe, it’s ultimately Faust’s love for Marguerite that redeems him, and while “love conquers all” may seem trite, it comes as a welcome relief after the film’s haunting conclusion. There must be joy to offset Mephisto, whose dark wings infest the sky so completely they blot out the sun. Murnau’s Faust is screen magic plain and simple—the kind you sell your soul for.
The Devil and Daniel Webster, (1941) dir. William Dieterle
“Why should that worry you? A soul? A soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it, touch it? No.”
Thirteen years after appearing in Murnau’s Faust as Marguerite’s brother, William Dieterle directed the certified masterpiece The Devil and Daniel Webster. The film adapts Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, which exchanges Goethe’s disenchanted genius for Jabez Stone (James Craig), a struggling New Hampshire farmer who’d sell his soul for two cents and a half-decent crop. Soon enough, Jabez is courted by the gleefully diabolic Mr. Scratch (a career-performance from Walter Huston), who offers the farmer seven years of American Dream prosperity in exchange for his soul. Jabez takes Mr. Scratch up on his offer and proceeds to flaunt his wealth, mock the less fortunate, and ignore his family. When Mr. Scratch returns to collect the debt, Jabez realizes the error of his ways and seeks out the real historical figure Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) who acts as the defense in the trial for Jabez’ soul (memorably parodied in “Treehouse of Horror IV”). Joseph August’s cinematography is a stupendous work of Expressionist artistry: an off-kilter chiaroscuro woodcut of moral descent. Likewise, Bernard Herman’s Oscar-winning score—teeming with the hum of telephone wires and overlaid violins—is nothing short of spectacular. The Devil and Daniel Webster represents an impressive cinematic synthesis of European stylishness and American folk, all against the backdrop of “Faust.”
The Twilight Zone “Escape Clause,” (1959) dir. Mitchell Leisen
“About my soul? You say I won’t miss it?”
Ah-ha! I’ve snuck a T.V. episode into this list! A devilish trick! Like any Twilight Zone episode worth its salt, “Escape Clause” delivers a shoe drop on a simple, crunchy premise: a hypochondriac makes a deal with the Devil for immortality and, par for the course there’s a twist. David Wayne plays Walter Bedeker, an irredeemable nihilist who’s suddenly met with a devilish bargain from the scene-chewing Cadwallader (Tomas Gomez), who offers him indestructibility, and an escape clause should he wish to void the contract and die. All that for the price of his measly little soul. This scene stands out in particular; how quickly Walter catches on; the way Cadwallader leaves the contract smoldering on the floor. Gomez’ performance is particularly strong; casting Satan as a jolly businessman who revels in coercing shortsighted dimwits. Bored by staging insurance claims and drinking ammonia, Walter tosses himself off the roof, which results in the accidental death of his wife. Knowing he’ll be impervious to the electric chair, Walter claims he killed her. Unfortunately, Walter’s extremely competent lawyer gets him life in prison. Invoking the titular escape clause Walter leans into his true nature, inviting death rather than live life in isolation. Poor devil. “Escape Clause” holds the distinction of being the first Twilight Zone episode featuring Satan incarnate and serves as one of the show’s many takes on the legend of Faust.
Bedazzled, (1967) dir. Stanley Donen
“I’m the horned one, the devil, let me give you my card.”
Groovy, deadpan, and dry as hell, Bedazzled is a brilliant and extremely British variation on the Faust myth. After a failed suicide attempt, Stanley Moon (a pathetic, milquetoast Dudley Moore) is approached by the dapper and constantly bemused Satan/George Spiggott (Peter Cook), who appears in Stanley’s shitty apartment to offer him seven wishes in exchange for his soul. With only the daydream of his co-worker falling in love with him as motivation to live, Stanley embarks on a wish-powered quest to woo Margaret (Eleanor Bron). Unlike other Fausts, Stanley is never corrupted by infernal power so much as duped by the less-than-specific wording of his wishes (he wants Margaret to be more physical, but fails to specify with him). There’s another deviation in that Satan isn’t evil incarnate so much as a fallen angel looking for a second chance. So while Stanley does eventually (as per Goethe) find his way back to the moral high-ground, it’s not without some amicable pity from Satan himself. Despite being effectively a series of skits broken up by vignettes of satanic mischief, Bedazzled deftly coalesces as a feature film that is somehow both extremely silly and sophisticated.
p.s. Against my better judgment, I am a big sucker for the remake starring Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley, produced in the year of our dark lord 2000. It doesn’t hold a candle to the o.g. Bedazzled but I mention it here regardless.
In its persistence through the annals of cinema, the Faust legend has demonstrated a marked versatility, adapting to everything from the audacious cubism of Don Juan et Faust; to the neo-noir Americana of Angel on my Shoulder and Alias Nick Beal; to the baseball musical Damn Yankees; to the creepy whimsy of Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer.
Furthermore, there are the tendril-like motifs that extend from “Faust,” each with their own distinct cinematic legacy: the legal imagery of hell (“infernal affairs”); the notoriously Faustian “Picture of Dorian Gray”; and the musically-inclined crossroad’s myth.
Truly like Satan himself, the Faust legend assumes many a pleasing shape.
- 1903, Faust et Méphistophélès, dir. Alice Guy
- 1913, The Student of Prague, dir. Hans Heinz Ewers
- 1915, The Magic Ass, dir. Richard Ridgely,
- 1922, Don Juan et Faust, dir. Marcel L’Herbier
- 1946, Angel on my Shoulder, dir. Archie Mayo
- 1949, Alias Nick Beal, dir. John Farrow
- 1958, Damn Yankees, dir. George Abbott
- 1960, Faust, dir. Peter Gorski
- 1967, Doctor Faustus, dir. Richard Burton, Nevil Coghill
- 1991,“Devil’s Due,” Star Trek: The Next Generation, dir, Tom Benko
- 1994, Faust, dir. Jan Švankmajer
- 2009, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, dir. Terry Gilliam
- 2011, Faust, dir Aleksandr Sokurov