The infernal incarnations of Faust

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste,
I’ve been around for a long, long year. Stole many a man’s soul to waste

-Sympathy For The Devil, The Rolling Stones (1968)

It’s often been said that when things go bad, especially in the political arena, then people start picking up guns, they also seemingly turn to Faust as a cultural metaphor. Goethe’s interpretation of Faust could easily be used as primer for almost any political ideology. Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto is often cited as a prime example of a writer repurposing the Faustian narrative to illustrate, in Mann’s case, an actor, abandoning his conscience in order to curry favour with the Nazi Party. Klaus Mann’s father would go on to write the post-war novel Doktor Faustus, Thomas Mann’s protagonist is a 20th century composer who trades his soul and his health (he deliberately contracts syphilis in order to inculcate madness) for creative genius.

The Rolling Stones were not exactly rebelling against the Swinging Sixties when they wrote Sympathy for The Devil but they were rebelling against the establishment, and marking their place in pop history much in the same way the Devil boasts of his achievements in the song. Rock and roll and its supposed satanic influence on youth are as feared today as it was 70 years ago. Decaying rock stars have a lot in common with Faust, more so now than ever, their legacy and depressingly predictable downfall brought about by sexual indiscretions, usually with much younger girls. Gretchen is still being exploited centuries later.

Film adaptations of Faust have been part of cinematic history since day one. F.W Murnau’s 1926 Faust – A German Folktale, is particularly striking, the visual effects are genuinely frightening especially his use of looming shadows and claustrophobic camerawork; techniques he honed so effectively in his best known work Nosferatu. Murnau’s imagery and set design are influenced by his time served on the Eastern Front during World War I. He was also heavily influenced by his friend, the painter Franz Marc a key figure in the Blue Rider art movement.
Philipp Humm’s The Last Faust is laced with German iconography but unlike Murnau it is not hidden, it’s front and centre. The gothic has been replaced by the graphic and veers dramatically away from the Murnau’s folkloric tale familiar to every German schoolchild.

Humms interpretation of Goethe’s second book is the wall that separates The Last Faust from all other attempts to tell the story on celluloid and the only one that firmly anchors Faust in the 21st century. Adaptations are numerous and as are those inspired by the basic premise of man’s lust for power and wealth. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is not directly inspired by Faust but the story and its characters are all woven from the same cloth. The central tenet of that film being that ‘greed is good’ and was there ever a character who could beat the Devil at his own game more so than Gordon Gecko?

As America hauled itself out of the Great Depression so along came The Devil and Daniel Webster, drawn from a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét it follows small time farmer Jabez Stone who’s unending bad luck sees him sell his soul to the Devil (Mr Scratch) in return for seven years of prosperity. After seven years Stone disputes his debt and hires politician Daniel Webster to defend him in court. Webster succeeds only to have his own future revealed to him by Mr Scratch.

This is very much a story of its time when the American public had faith in their leaders. The current political climate in the United States would likely see its citizens place more faith in the Devil than its current batch of ne’er-do-wells.

In 2011 Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov presented his own unique version of Faust. Sokurov throws out any concept of redemption and places his tormented scholar ina Dickensian world of grime and squalor. At two and a half hours it’s a long haul and occassionaly confusing, especially for viewers unfamiliar with the source material, not that that matters much as Sokurov dispenses with much of it. Add to this some brutal and queasy cinematography and you can see why critics sent it to hell.

Meanwhile, the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden recently closed it’s production of David McVicar’s adaptation of Gounod’s Faust. Set in 1870’s Paris the production (again) focuses solely on Book 1 and transfers Faust’s lust for knowledge and power for his longing to be young and desirable to facilitate his lust for young women. Despite being one of the world’s most popular opera’s it lacked originality and maintained that most popular of operatic tropes, flag waving.

No sooner had McVicar’s production closed then another opened, this time Richard Jones’ adaptation of Berlioz Le Damnation de Faust at Glyndebourne.

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