It says something about the inestimable talents of German director F.W. Murnau that he directed not only the single most influential (and almost certainly the finest) horror movie of all time, 1922's Nosferatu, but also a fable about the the simplicity of pastoral life, 1927's Sunrise, which also just so happens to be one of the most influential and finest dramatic movies ever made. His reputation with modern viewers rests almost exclusively on those two films, and well might they support such a reputation; but it's a bit of a shame that this should be the case, for they are hardly the only worthwhile remnants of a career spanning 21 films, 12 years and two continents.

For example: Faust, adapted by Hans Kyser from Goethe's beloved play and filmed in 1926. It was the great horror master's farewell to the genre; it was also his last film made in his native Germany, for before the year was out he'd travel to Hollywood to start work on Sunrise for Fox. In other words, Faust is the movie immediately preceding the (arguably) greatest American film ever made, and it more than holds up in comparison. It may not be so overwhelming in its totality as its successor, nor as revolutionary and genuinely uncanny as Nosferatu, there can be no doubt but that Faust was the product of an incomparable visual talent, a man whose ability to manipulate the very fabric of the cinema to create some of the most indelible, poetic images in the history of the art form has been only rarely approached, and never equaled in the 77 years since his death.

The story of Faust, in at least its broadest strokes, is one of the most familiar in all of Western literature: Dr. Johann Faust (Gösta Ekman), an alchemist, makes a pact with Satan for the knowledge of, and dominion over, the mysteries of life and death. Goethe adds the details of a bet between Satan and God, and an ending in which Faust is unambiguously saved when he repents all his sins at the end of his life. Kyser and Murnau necessarily shorten Goethe, and add what we might call the "comic interlude," a short passage in the middle of the film that scandalised and outraged the original German audience, and serves primarily for the modern viewer as an ample evidence that the notorious Odious Comic Relief has ever been the bane of horror movies, even those which objectively count as otherwise-flawless masterpieces of cinema.

Notwithstanding those angry, Goethe-adoring Weimar Germans, it's pretty hard to imagine anybody walking away from Murnau's Faust with their head full of plot developments and thematic revelations. This is, flat-out, one of the most visually exciting films I have ever seen, with the kind of startling and unforgettable visions that could make someone who'd never once thought about compositions or focal depth or cinematic formalism of any kind to step back and say, "Ah, yes - that is why they call film a visual medium." It takes exactly one frame after the opening credits to realise that we are in the hands of a for-real genius of his art: the very first shot of the film is of the the riders Pestilence, War and Famine galloping over a void, realised in an undeniably fake effect that is without question the most legitimately chilling version of the Horsemen that I have ever seen on film. Only a handful of shots later, we see the devil himself (Emil Jannings) rising from a mountain in a shot copied, but not improved, by the Disney animators in Fantasia. And that leads into the remarkable shot of the devil standing over the tiny village where Faust lives, wrapping his great black cloak around it, making it his own; no more than an actor standing above a model, of course, but so primordially effective in composition and lighting that it must surely rank as one of the most perfect images in the medium's 113-year history.

The first 40 minutes of Faust are full of moments like that: whether it's Murnau's unmatched sense of phantasmagoria, or the absolutely brilliant performance Jannings turns in as the sneering, clever, wicked Mephisto - easily the finest work he ever did in a career hardly wanting for great performances, though it must be said that his acting is unmistakably the stuff of silent film, with far more mugging and giant facial expressions than even the clumsiest ham actor would stumble into in this day and age. Admittedly, his make-up, with giant sweeping eyebrows that give him a perpetually calculating look, helps a great deal, but isn't that the way of true German Expressionism? Make-up, costume, lighting, acting, composition, set design all working to create a unified visual whole. And no mistake, in its best moments, Faust equals and bests Nosferatu and Metropolis, the acknowledged masterpieces of the genre.

The world that Murnau creates is so complete - an uncanny medieval Europe that suggests a more atmospheric version of Bergman's The Seventh Seal - and executed with such technical skill, one wishes to swim in the visuals forever, letting them overwhelm and drown him. 16 years into the CGI Revolution, there has still not been a film with one portion of the invention in Faust; the extraordinary and semi-famous crane-shot over a vast model of miniature fields and mountains and waterfalls, evoking Faust's flight with Mephisto over seemingly the whole of the continent, is alone worth every shiny action setpiece from every big-budget popcorn epic of the last decade. Even if you're too cynical to love it for the sheer movie magic involved, just on the level of technical admiration, it's the difference between acknowledging the skills of a bunch of programmers compared to gawking at the fact that somebody, in Germany in the mid-1920s, spent a whole lot of time and money building one of the biggest goddamn miniature sets that you will ever witness. It is the genius of a crazy person with the incredible fortune to see his outsized ambitions matched by one of the largest productions ever mounted by the UFA studio before it was absorbed by the Nazis.

Then, those first 40 minutes end, and what remains is by all means a great silent film, even a pretty decent silent comedy. But the whole matter of Faust's seduction of the virtuous Gretchen (Camilla Horn) - and even moreso, the matter of Mephisto's slapsticky seduction of her aunt Marthe (Yvette Guilbert) - seem indescribably pedestrian compared to the once-in-a-century marvels of the first act. Murnau himself had already shown it was possible to keep that level of invention up for a whole film, and he'd do it again the very next year. But for too long, he lets Faust degenerate into being merely one of the better silent romances ever produced in Germany. The last quarter of an hour, perhaps slightly longer - corresponding to Gretchen's abandonment, and Faust's redemption - picks up the reins again, and there are some extraordinary moments, such as the process shot showing us how her cries of anguish meet him in a faraway country. But nothing ever comes to the transcendent level of that shot of Mephisto standing over the town, or the flight over the model.

That's hardly enough to count against the film. Faust is a masterpiece, and essential viewing for anyone who values the imagination of a visual artist to even the smallest degree. If it had maintained the level of its highest peaks, I'd be forced to consider it among the very best films ever made; as it is, it's a great work by a great director, and one of the most instantly accessible silent films I have ever seen.