Faust is world-weary. Again and again he is confronted with the limits of his knowledge. Now, convinced that the end of his life’s journey is in sight, he yearns only for death. In the distance he hears the voices of young girls, who, together with their friends, sing the praises of God and the beauty of life. Faust, however, has lost his faith in God. He curses religion and calls on Satan for help. The devil promptly appears in the guise of Méphistophélès, and promises Faust that he will fulfil all his wishes. The aging scholar desires eternal youth, which the devil will give him in return for his soul. As proof of his powers he offers Faust a vision of the girl Marguerite. Is this truly what is awaiting him? Faust signs the contract forthwith and drinks the elixir of youth, which turns him into a young man. The two set off in order to meet the girl that very day.
A jolly fair is in full swing. The youth Siebel, who is in love with Marguerite, promises her brother Valentin he will protect her while Valentin is off at war. Whether he will return safe and sound from the glory of battle, only God knows, but there is still serious drinking to do before he departs. Méphistophélès interrupts the carousing; he sings a song about the Golden Calf, in which he intends to flaunt Satan’s power. He boasts of his sorcery, offers them better wine, and claims to predict Siebel’s future. But when he makes a toast to Marguerite, Valentin has had enough of his effrontery. Only with the sign of the cross is he able to fend off his adversary. The feast carries on. Faust waits impatiently for the moment he can meet the girl of his vision face to face. At last, there she is! But when he offers his arm, Marguerite refuses.
Faust and Méphistophélès watch as Siebel brings Marguerite flowers. The first bouquet withers at his touch, but once he has washed his hands in holy water he can pluck new ones and lay them at his beloved’s doorstep. While Faust eagerly anticipates a second meeting with Marguerite, Méphistophélès appears with a casket of jewels, which are more likely to impress the girl than Siebel’s flowers. The seducer and his cohort lie in wait to observe the girl’s reaction to their gift. Marguerite enters and tries to distract herself with an innocent song, but cannot contain her curiosity and opens the box. She drapes herself with the jewels straight away and undergoes a veritable metamorphosis. Her friend Marthe Schwerdtlein joins her, and although she can hardly believe her eyes, she reassures Marguerite that the jewels were undeniably meant for her. At the same time, however, Marthe is getting in the way of the romantic rendezvous that Faust so violently desires. Méphistophélès distracts the older woman so that Faust and Marguerite can finally be left alone undisturbed, and Marthe, for her part, is pleased to have finally found herself a cavalier. Faust declares his love for Marguerite; she believes him, but when he wants to spend the night with her, she becomes skittish and sends him away until the following day. Faust is about to give up hope when Marguerite invites him to stay after all. Méphistophélès roars with laughter, confirming who the real winner is in this game of love.
Marguerite is pregnant and Faust has deserted her. The other girls taunt her; Siebel is the only friend who has remained true to her. Marguerite still loves Faust, even though she knows he will never return. Siebel swears to avenge her dishonour. She appreciates his friendship, but seeks comfort in the church, where she goes to pray for Faust and their child. But even the church is hardly a haven of mercy. Méphistophélès has concealed himself there; he peppers her with new guilty thoughts. Confused by all the voices, Marguerite begs God for forgiveness but hears only Méphistophélès’ curses. She collapses. Valentin has returned from battle and goes to pay his sister a visit. Siebel tries to restrain him, not wanting him to learn of Marguerite’s disgrace. Faust too longs for Marguerite. Méphistophélès sings a lewd song intended to lure Marguerite out of the house, but instead her brother appears, demanding a duel with the man who brought shame upon his sister. Aided by Méphistophélès’ sorcery, Faust fatally wounds Valentin. As he dies, it is clear to him who bears the guilt for his death: Marguerite. He curses his sister.
Méphistophélès takes Faust with him to his realm, and shows him the delights awaiting him. All manner of women attempt to seduce the scholar. But then Faust sees a pale vision of Marguerite. It is as though she is doomed. He demands to see her once more, in order to rescue her –his final request to Méphistophélès. Marguerite has been condemned to death for killing her child. Faust begs her to escape with him. They reminisce about their first encounter, but Marguerite is in no state to follow him. Méphistophélès urges them to flee as swiftly as possible, and she recognizes him as the devil. She prays to God and finds salvation in death. As Méphistophélès curses her, celestial voices signify that her soul has been saved.