It's amazing what could be accomplished visually in film almost a hundred years ago. Sure, the medium was still developing as an art form; we're not talking Star Wars level yet, but the effects in the best fantasy films of the 1920's and 1930's and beyond still hold up today. They weren't hung up on realism back then. They wanted to transport you to another world through striking visuals and good storytelling. Nobody watches The Wizard of Oz or King Kong and goes "that looks so fake!", because they don't care.
F.W. Murnau's 1927 silent masterpiece Faust is one such fantasy film. The story is a timeless classic, and the movie visualizes it beautifully. Faust is, of course, the story of a bet between the demon Mephisto and an Archangel. If Mephisto can corrupt the soul of a good man, then the earth will be his. Mephisto chooses the old alchemist Faust, and sets his plan into motion by spreading the plague to Faust's village. Faust prays for assistance in curing the dying masses, but the only help he gets is from Mephisto, who offers him the power to heal for a 24 hour period only. This, of course leads to more deals, for money, power, lust, and ultimately love. Will Faust's soul be saved, or will the world be given over to Mephisto?
Murnau is perhaps best known for Nosferatu, the eternally creepy Dracula adaptation that is better than the actual Dracula adaptation. He is an important figure in the German expressionism movement, which influences the look of fantasy and horror movies to this day. He brings this expressionist dynamic to his beautiful and surreal visual portrayals of heaven and hell. I mean, just look at this!
The standout performance in the movie isn't Faust, it's Mephisto himself, played by Emil Jannings. He's sinister and playful all at once, always peeking over Faust's shoulder and toying with him. His performance is made all the more unsettling with the knowledge that 15 or so years after this movie, he was a Nazi, acting in several propaganda films for the party. Learning that fact made me kind of sad because I totally wanted to like the guy.
The Faust legend has been told and retold a million times. My favorite version is Bedazzled, the Dudley Moore and Peter Cook comedy from the 60's. And you can't discount 1941's The Devil and Daniel Webster, with Walter Huston's performance as Old Mr. Scratch being possibly the most endearing and memorable portrayal of the devil in cinema. Murnau's Faust is also up there with the best of them, and one of the most beautiful looking films of the silent period.