- Clouded Vision: Particulate Matter in F. W. Murnau’s Faust
F. W. Murnau’s 1926 film Faust emerges from a fog. Following the credit sequence, an intertitle commands the viewer: “Behold! The gates of hell are opened and the horrors of the masses plague the earth.”1 The first shot then throws us into a turbulent brew of smoke and steam that completely fills the frame. A light seems to emanate from the background, but the intervening fog obscures any sense of spatial extension or scale. Through a dissolve, this primordial haze gives way to an image of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse—War, Plague, and Famine—whose steeds rise and fall rhythmically as they are buffeted and nearly enveloped in roiling clouds. Then a light appears—the sun, rendered with special effects, rises to pierce the haze. Flashing pillars of light overtake the frame, blinding our view of the riders, until the glowing eyes (and glinting fingernails) of Mephisto (played by Emil Jannings) peek out of the darkness. Now, in place of the sun, an archangel steps forth, sword raised, and demands that Mephisto stop torturing humanity, to which he replies, thick smoke rising behind him: “The earth is mine!”
In her 1964 book on Murnau, Lotte Eisner described the film’s opening and concluding scenes as “fugues of light, orchestrated with incomparable mastery.”2 Eisner’s assessment heralded Faust’s current status as a high point of expressionist Lichtregie (“lighting direction” or “lighting design”). Anne Hoormann subsequently included Faust in her book on the poetics of light in early twentieth-century German cultural production, while Frances Guerin discussed Faust in her more recent book on lighting technology in German films of the silent era.3 [End Page 707] Anticipating such readings, Eisner wrote, “light and movement: all Murnau’s experiments and discoveries . . . came to full fruition in Faust” (Murnau, 165). This focus on light, however, suggests a visual clarity that belies the film’s literal fogginess. Andor Krazsna-Krausz’s contemporary review in Filmtechnik better captured this aspect of the film: “Smoke, pregnant with mystical dangers, links and frames his images, in which blinding whites flare up and the deepest blacks are seen. He projects striking beams of light into the viewer’s eyes, only to blind them with soot, smoke, and steam in the next scene.”4 From the prologue to the stake burning that ends the film, forms of particulate matter—smoke, fog, vapor, and airborne dust—pervade the imagery of Faust. As Kurt Pinthus joked in his contemporary review of the film, “every time that Faust (or the director) doesn’t know what to do, we see him sitting on an outcropping surrounded by fog, giving the impression that he takes a steam bath whenever he’s grumpy.”5 As much as it is a fugue of light, Faust is a fugue of fog. Its lightscapes are suffused with particulates that rise, hang, blow, billow, stream, condense, and dissipate.
I will argue that Murnau’s Faust is a film about Zerstreuung, which is most often translated in English as “distraction” and has become a key term in critical writing about modernity. The word entered contemporary academic discourse in the 1980s, when English readers (primarily in film studies) were introduced to Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin, whose cultural criticism of the interwar period served as crucial guides for those seeking to understand the condition of modernity.6 In the cinematic context, Zerstreuung (alongside cognate terms like Ablenkung and Unterhaltung) primarily refers to an attitude of distracted spectatorship, which Benjamin famously called “reception in distraction” (“Rezeption in der Zerstreuung”) (Selected, 3:120). The plot of Murnau’s Faust hinges on this kind of looking, as Mephisto more than once seduces the easily distracted protagonist by spectacular means. Considered in light of the modern discourse on distraction, the smoke and steam of Faust evoke a precinematic tradition of visual entertainments, such as the magic theater and phantasmagoria, which employed such materials to produce wondrous and frightening apparitions.
The sheer ubiquity and variety of particulate matter in Murnau’s film, however, exceeds its use as a mere special effect. In this tale of transgression in the...