The film begins with a wager; a sequence familiar from Goethe’s Faust 1 and The Book of Job. In the Faust film, the devil proposes a wager that he can property the earth if he can corrupt Faust’s soul, taking him away from God. “Man belongs to God” charges the archangel, who nevertheless consents to the terms of the wager, weighing Faust’s soul, that is the soul of humankind, against the sum of the Earth. This is a trick on the part of the archangel, as the Earth is a realm where Hell has as much influence as Heaven.
God remains distant, but in the end, the soul of humankind does belong to Heaven, made so ascendant by a force that Mephisto is unable to conceive – love.
Mephisto descends over the elaborately modeled, provincial village, blotting out the sun, towering over the cathedral’s steeple, and bringing the winds of the plague through the streets, interrupting the concurrent medieval fair, scattering and striking villagers dead.
Faust strives to cure the plague by appealing both to science and God, but both fail him. He prays for the blessing of a curative, one of his alchemical concoctions. When it is administered to an old woman it fails to heal her, perhaps even killing her. “Only you can help us,” the villagers implore of him, but Faust casts them aside proclaiming that all is vanity and he is powerless. In his despair, he begins to wreck his laboratory.
In the Book of Job, the Adversary tempts Job to curse The Lord by taking all his needs away from him i.
e. his flocks, wealth, and children, while in Faust Part 1 Mephistopheles tempts Faust by offering him everything he might want. In the Faust film, Mephisto appeals to Faust’s desire to help people, tempting him first with power and then with increasingly base temptations that eventually leave him isolated and unsatisfied, brooding among jagged mountain peaks.
The inclusion, early in the film, of the priest exhorting a pious audience to repent and pray, seems to have been generated for the Faust film. But its inclusion is tightly knit into the whole. The cross looms large in the frame as the priest implores that “only faith can vanquish death”. The sickly crowd greedily kisses the cross recalling the actions of the Bishop of Zamora during the 1918 flu where crowds lined up to kiss the saint’s relics resulting in extensive infection. Contrary to the somberness of the pious is a trail of merrymakers and revelers who wish to dance their way to death, celebrating their short time on Earth. The stark contrast of the two approaches obliges the viewer to ask herself, which is the more appealing? The sequence ends with a tragic irony where the priest exhorts the crowd “But death shall take the sinners!” while Mephisto’s demonic portrait dominates the horizon striking the priest down. Piety and goodness are not guaranteed for life.