The Hope of Evil: Faustian Themes in Modern Cinema

Faust has returned to the movies. He is no prop or backdrop character, but has taken center stage in a cornucopia of images, versions, and mediums. In Jan Svankmajer’s award winning Czech rendition of Faust (1994), the menacing and mysterious figure is portrayed by actors, puppets, and animation, all in a surreal universe crafted in darkness and shadow.


Jan Svankmajer’s Faust (1994)

Darkness and shadow become the wardrobe of Faust in modern cinema, as seen in the central motif of the most famous hero of the night: Batman. In Christopher Nolan’s much popular Batman Begins (2005) the life changing scene for young Bruce Wayne is the opera house where Boito’s Mefestofele is being performed. Bat-winged creatures swarm the stage in one scene disturbing young Wayne to the point where he must leave the theater. This decision becomes the catalyst ending in the murder of his parents and the deal Wayne himself has to make with the Devil. This is no idle set up. Batman becomes Faust in a cape, incorporating secret knowledge and even forbidden arts in his arsenal and identity.


Batman Begins (2004) Batman is a version of Faust

Faust even shows up on Saturday morning cartoons, where a bold and nearly unstoppable Felix Faust appears in an episode Paradise Lost of the Justice League (2002). The caped crusaders rarely find an opponent they cannot easily overcome, until an ancient magician sacks the home island of Wonder Woman and puts all the League in a spell. Indeed, the only being who can overpower Faust is Mephistopheles, who betrays him in the final scene allowing the League to escape with their lives.


Felix Faust, Justice League (2002)

The story of Faust touches on something in the human psyche which makes the tale both repugnant and endlessly alluring. Perhaps this is so because the Faust tale addresses humankind’s relationship with evil. Why are we so fascinated by the forbidden? Why do we cling to evil when there are other choices? Why do we show more cunning than compassion? And what tips the scale in human consciousness allowing for a quest for the good and beautiful over and above evil? These are just some of the questions which haunt the darkness and shadows of the psyche. Questions which we as a species must reflect upon.

In the modern medium of cinema these questions are asked and re-asked through parallel dramas, tragedies, and comedies with the essence of the questions of evil in mind. For example, John Lyden reflects in Film as Religion on the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs. Lyden sees why evil can be tempting, even when it is portrayed in its purest form:

Anthony Hopkins essentially plays [Lecter] as Faust’s Mephistopheles, who tempts the heroine with greater knowledge in exchange for participation in his evil. In being able to deal with Lecter, Clarice (like Faust) confronts and deals with evil in order to be better able to contain it–to attempt to stop her private lambs from screaming, even though she knows they will never stop, for evil will always exist. All victories over evil are partial, it is shown, and there is also a recognition that the potential for evil is within us all, […].” (245)

Clarice’s connection with the mass killer Lecter is both repulsive and attractive. Ironically, Lecter is a character who is steeped in knowledge and the world’s wisdom. Indeed, in the movie sequel Red Dragon (2002) Lecter is a much touted professor giving lectures on obscure, ancient rituals and arcana (involving acts of death of course). He is more than just super-smart, filled with eclectic trivia. Lecter is Mephistopheles incarnate. He kills ritualistically, without mercy, and even eats his victims. There is a perverse religiosity to his sins, for Hannibal Lecter shows the hypocrisy and vanity innate in all his victims, and in the world in general. Clarice is also super-intelligent, and she sees through Lecter how is actions, in an inept and topsy turvy world, conform to their own morality. Furthermore, and as Lyden observes, Clarice seeks out Lecter in her own search in understanding evil, not rooted in Lecter, but in herself.


Hannibal Lecter is Mephistopholes

The story of Hannibal Lecter, in many ways, draws upon the nineteenth century, German drama Faust. This was a play where the very question of human identity was posed not in context of the Age of Reason, or the Reformation Movement, or the Industrialization of modern civilizations, but rather in the context of evil, through the character Mephistopheles, whose dominion and power ran through and over Reason, Christianity, and Industrialization.

Goethe’s Faust begins with a discourse between the Devil and the Almighty, not unlike the deal struck between the two in the Book of Job: “And Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2: 4-6). The figure of Job is an antithesis to the figure of Faust, however. Job is saintly, pure, and dedicated to the Lord from the first flash of sunlight, even declaring in the gall of his bitterness, “Though he [the Lord] slay me, yet will I trust in him […]” (Job 13: 15).

Faust, on the other hand, holds his virtue as the knowledge of the earth and all things above and below, and not in his relationship with God. In fact, Mephistopheles chides God for this very fact, “[Men] would be better off, in life at least, Had you withheld the spark of celestial light; he calls it reason, using it as right to be more animal than any beast” (11). The Devil simply reveals what God already understands: humankind is a flawed creature. Yet the Almighty retorts: “Do you know Faust?” (11). Mephistopheles is surprised the Lord would mention such a creature. But God assures the Devil he has plans for this bent soul, “Although he serves me now bewilderedly, I soon will lead him where the light is clear” (12). Thus, the Lord and Satan strike a deal, “What do you wager?” poses Mephistopheles (12). Nothing but Faust’s soul will do of course, and the Almighty agrees, “As long as he remains on earth–agreed! Nothing is forbidden you contrive; Man errs so long as he will strive” (12).

It is an interesting deal struck between these two antipodes of the cosmos. Unlike the case of Job, whose virtue and valiance is placed in the scales of judgement, Faust has his “celestial light” of reason placed in the scales. Faust in no Job. He is a worldly man of letters. “I’ve studied all Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence too, Also, to my grief, Theology […]. I’m cleverer than all that tribe–Doctor, Lawyer, Parson, Scribe; All doubts and scruples I dispel, I have no fear of devil or hell […]” (14). Doctor Faust has no fear of evil or superstitions. Perhaps this is why the Almighty allows Mephistopheles the wager. In the case of Job, God knew his virtue would win out. In the case of Faust, God foresees that Faust’s uncompromising will of reason will eventually lead him to virtue. This is an irony of ironies, for Faust has ascended all earthly ranks of intellectual honor and station, yet recognizes the insignificance of it all, “I’m Master, Doctor, and I’ve found for ten long years, that as I chose I’ve led my students by the nose. First up, then down, then all around, to see that nothing can be known” (14).

Faust’s seemingly unlimited knowledge has brought him to the revelation that human understanding has its limits, and apparently those limits are rather short. Perhaps this is why the theme of Faust in modern movies and television is recurrent. Maike Oergel, in Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815, interprets Faust clearly in the context of the failures of human reason, even in the ultra-rational world of the Scientific Revolution. “The primary focus [in Faust] is not, as has often been claimed, on a universal human identity, but on the emergence of a modern identity” (225).

For Oergel, the character Faust is not so much an intermediary figure as he is an introductory figure of modernity. He is a character who has surpassed the initial fascination with modern technology and science to find that on the other end of it all is, still, an endless and even answer-less quest for meaning in life. Modernity has not brought paradise, but only has exasperated the realization of its absence. Faust is a man fully caught up in this realization, and thus is a primal character for our times. Christopher Falzon writes about this paradox in Philosophy Goes to the Movies:

The catastrophic events of the twentieth century, including the technologically efficient carnage of two world wars, Nazi atrocities committed in the heart of an “enlightened” Europe and a nuclear arms race that at one stage threatened the very existence of humanity, have brought this faith in reason and science into question. The impact of technology and industrialization on everyday life has by no means been unequivocally positive; […]. Overall, it is no longer so clear that there is a necessary link between science and progress. Instead a range of concerns and anxieties have emerged about the role and effects of science and technology on human existence, along with more pessimistic, dystopian visions of the future. (158)

As Falzon notes, “early expressions of this anxiety” are introduced in two literary works: Goethe’s Faust and Shelley’s Frankenstein (158). Faust, disgusted with the disappointments and anxieties of modernity, turns to magic, “No dog would stand this any more! Therefore I’ve turned to magic lore, so that, through supernatural force, I’ll trace many a secret to its source” (15). This theme is picked up in a recent film release, The Prestige (2006), where two magicians (illusionists) vie for power and control over each other in 19th century Europe. Both Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale) have an engineer contriving their tricks. This person is the model of modern Europe, using science and mathematics to create unending illusions. Of course, this is Faust’s complaint of the scientific revolution, modern reasoning has brought nothing but eye wash and special effects. Modernity is a magic show where the true questions of life are still pushed into the back of consciousness.


Angier as Faust, The Prestige (2006)

So it is, that the film begins with Angier on a quest for answers to see what is behind science. “Cypher. Engima. A search. A search for answers,” writes Angier in his notebook as he travels towards Colorado (07:50). In Colorado Springs works a man who has built a machine for each magician. His name is Tesla, the inventor, or rather technocrat of AC electrical current. Tesla plays the role of Mephistopheles, the grand, worldly wise, true magician who can fabricate things beyond science and technology. However, for Borden Tesla fabricates an electric device that simply provides special effects to his already planned illusions. Angier wants something more: “Magic. Real Magic!” he exclaims when seeing Tesla light up a field of electric light bulbs with no wires (44:30).

Indeed, Angier pays Tesla an enormous amount of money to build a machine that is real sorcery. “I need something impossible,” Angier tells Tesla, who responds, “Have you heard the phrase, ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?’ It’s a lie. Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve. Society can only tolerate one change at a time” (50:42). Tesla, true to his Mephistophelean morality, inquires “Have you considered the cost of such a machine” (51:30)? Angier replies that price is no object, but Mephistopheles understands what he is asking, “Perhaps not, but have you considered the cost” (51:38)?

Ultimately, when any character who represents Mephistopheles asks such a question there can be no doubt that the true cost is one’s own soul. Money is irrelevant; it is nothing but a cog in the clockwork of the world. One’s soul, on the other hand, is beyond cogs and gears and all the modern estimations of life. Thus here is the central theme and question beyond the reach of any mundane approach in any age of history, regardless of the sophistication of one’s science and technology: what is the soul? And how does one fulfill its natural desire to transcend the mundane? And what will one exchange for his soul? The answers to the latter question is why evil is no illusion, for there is an endless list of obsessions for which humankind will always pursue at the cost of soul and with the engagement of evil.

For Faust, the obsession is ultimate knowledge. Already admitting that nothing can be known, there must be some ultimate reality beyond the world that can be obtained, even perhaps dominated? What is beyond this life? Ultimately, what is life’s purpose? In the Age of Reason human beings find only disappointment in the answers to these questions. The modern philosopher of disappointment–Nietzsche–quotes Schopenhauer, “What gives to everything tragic […] the characteristic tendency to the sublime, is the dawning of the knowledge that the world and life can afford us no true satisfaction, and are therefore not worth our attachment to them. In this the tragic spirit consists; accordingly it leads to resignation” (10, italics his).

Modern disillusionment retraces the Faust story in daily life. Individuals seeing that all their technologies, degrees, cable channels, and entertainments do not solve their most pressing problems within, simply give up trying to resolve the questions of interiority, thus making the deal with the Devil simple: give me whatever this life can afford and you take care of the rest! This certainly is the theme of the most recent Academy Award winning film The Departed (2006). Costello (Jack Nicholson) plays the part of Mephistopheles, whose first line and the first words of the film represent the movies entire theme which is the hope of the disillusioned:

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying – we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this – no one gives it to you. You have to take it.

Jarring. Violent. Gritty. Intolerant. These are the values of Costello’s world that work. Not unlike Enron executives who are Lords of the Corporation. Or scandal ridden board rooms of the stock houses who are Lords of Wall Street. Or the corruption engulfed conspirators of the mortgage markets who are Lords of Suburbia. Our modern world is full of Costellos whose prime motivation in life is completing the Devil’s deal by “taking it.” In The Departed Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Collin Sullivan (Matt Damon) play the fated Faust character in duo fashion. Each make a deal with a devil. Costigan makes his deal with the cops to live and work for Costello. Like Clarice in Silence, Costigan is immersed in a world of evil where he must tenuously walk a rigid line between life and death, evil and more evil. Sullivan is a cop who makes a deal with Costello, a spy for the Italian maffia who ascends to the highest levels of law enforcement. In the world of “You have to take it!” everyone dies. In the ending of this film there are only funerals, showing that not even the Mephistopheles’ of this world come out ahead.

Curiously, the modern psyche forewarns humanity that no amount of modernity can change this scenario. Indeed, in the special effects ridden and futuristic techno-tale of Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith (2005), George Lucas retells the Faust story in full as a message for our day. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) is the ultimate in Faustian roles, for he is a Jedi Knight not only versed in the learning of the universe, but trained in the magical arts. In Revenge of the Sith Anakin makes a deal with Mephistopheles who posits: “If one is to understand the great mystery one must study all the subtleties of the force, even the dark side. […] Only through me can you achieve a power greater than any Jedi” (1:03:30). Anakin betrays the noble priesthood of the Jedi and destroys their temple all in an exchange for knowledge of the “mysteries” underneath his new tutor, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who promises to reveal to him the knowledge of eternal life. This is a ruse of course, as Palpatine does not know it. In a twist of fate at the end of the film, with the Jedi completely undone, Yoda trains Kenobi in the ways of eternal life!


Anakin Skywalker is Faust, Revenge of the Sith (2005)

In any case, Lucas’s film is a foreshadowing that no amount of technology in his futuristic world can replace probing the true questions of life dealing with evil. It’s as if to say, the soul, no matter where it is found, in whatever era or cosmos, must find its own relationship with evil. We all must turn into Faust. But how to make it through? Certainly not as the Devil (Costello) or as one obsessed with power (Angier) or personal demons (Clarice) or vengeance (Bruce Wayne) or even forbidden knowledge (Anakin). But then how?

Interestingly, the answer to this question is revealed in all the works mentioned. In The Prestige Angier and Borden begin their journey not with Tesla, but in and through the presence of the feminine. Indeed, when Angier’s wife dies in a magic trick gone awry, and most likely caused by the wrong knot tied by Borden, Angier’s soul is permanently scarred. After his wife’s death, Angier is obsessed with outdoing every part of Borden’s life, and eventually to seek it. Ironically, Angier is the far more talented magician between the two, and when another assistant named Olivia (Scarlet Johansson) comes to Angier’s aid and offers him her love, he rejects it, blinded by his obsession to outdo Borden, or in other words, blinded by his flawed relationship with evil as revealed in his relationship with the feminine. In fact, the moment Angier dismisses Olivia, sending her to Borden as a spy, is the moment Angier loses what is left of his soul. Borden, on the other hand, takes Olivia in and falls in love with her. But Borden has a secret–a twin brother–who is the basis of his most spectacular magic tricks; for no one knows of Borden’s other half. So it is that Borden’s other brother also plays Borden, and he is married and very much loves his wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall). The brothers never reveal their identities to their lovers, and Sarah suspects her husband is having an affair with Olivia. In short, this lack of honesty by both Bordens and Angier shown to the women who love them is the poison which causes the loss of soul in each of them.

In a film with so many doubles, the machine Tesla builds Angier clones any object that is placed within it. Angier uses this machine in an act of vengeance, setting up Borden for a false murder charge by both cloning himself and then murdering his clone with Borden as the fall guy. Here at least is the difference between the two magicians: Angier kills his clones as part of his magic trick while Borden uses the other Borden as the magic trick. In the end however, one Borden hangs for the crime of killing Angier (who is just a clone mind you). The other Borden kills the real Angier in the final act of vengeance.

All this death and at its root one’s relationship with the feminine. It’s as if the twin brother of Borden and the clones of Angier are really the images of the psyche, the true individuality of each of them–their souls–each trying to grasp at the powers of the world while blinded to the feminine who would authentically empower them.

This relationship is consistent throughout all the works discussed. The turning point in Goethe’s Faust is when the great Doctor meets Gretchen. Up until this point Mephistopheles has provided anything Faust desired, but none of it impressed him in the least. Yet, what does the world of a cold, calculating man of learning know of the world of woman? When Faust meets Gretchen for the first time he feels his soul lost, and can only confess, “Fetch me something the angel wears! Take me to her place of rest! Fetch me her garter as a token–fetch me the kerchief from her breast!” (96). But Faust’s first relationship with Gretchen is not authentic. He wants her for passion’s sake. And in truth, with Mephistopheles’ aid, he eventually takes Gretchen to his bed. Once lovers, and parted from the counterfeit world of culture and science, Faust comes to his primal revelation: “Now fully do I realize that man can never possess perfection! With this ecstasy which brings me near and nearer to the gods […]” (123).

This revelation comes with a terrible price. The good Doctor impregnates Gretchen , then is forced to leave her. Her honor despoiled, her brother Valentine seeks revenge, but to no avail, for in a duel he is slain by Faust. In sheer torment Gretchen holds her dying brother exclaiming, “My brother! This is the agony of Hell!” (146). His response is cold, “Dry those useless tears, I say! You dealt my heart a fatal blow when you flung your honor away” (146). In his dying breath he accuses Gretchen of slaying his real self, his inner soul, by the loss of her honor. This realization overcomes the poor girl, who at this point is alone and pregnant. Eventually, imprisoned for killing her own illegitimate child, Gretchen can find no peace, “Dear God! Dear God! They’re coming! O bitter death!” (176).

Only these turn of events can change the heart of Faust. And, as the Almighty knew all along, it is Faust’s heart (his compassion) that needs changed before his mind (reason) can do him any good. When Faust realizes what he has done to his lover, when he sees his true relationship with the feminine, he finally understands his relationship with evil, as he confesses to his trusted companion Mephistopheles: “Imprisoned! Lost in hopeless misery! Delivered over to evil spirits and to the pitiless judgment of men! And meanwhile you lulled me with insipid distraction, you concealed from me her increasing misfortune and allowed her so slide hopelessly into ruin!” (171). This is the changing point for Faust, who now seeks a completely different course in his life and has a fundamentally changed relationship with his tutor the Devil, who can only acquiesce, “It is the way of a tyrant to destroy the innocent opponent who crosses his path when he seeks a way out of his dilemma” (173).

So it is that Bruce Wayne’s own inability to deal with the death of his mother and the loss of his boyhood girlfriend provides the real grist for his vengeance. It is not evil that turns Wayne into Batman, it is the loss of the feminine. Castigan and Sullivan both vie for the same woman in The Departed, neither with great success. But it is the more authentic relationship of Castigan with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) which provides his impulse to overcome all the temptations of Costello and Costello’s world. In the end, it is Castigan who is awarded the highest medal of honor for maintaining his appropriate relationship with evil through his relationship with the feminine. And of course, it is Anakin’s illegitimate relationship to Padme (Natalie Portman) which seals his decision to join the dark side of the force, just as it is his legitimate relationship with his own daughter Leia (Carrie Fisher) in Return of the Jedi (1983) where he finds the courage to defeat Palpatine and vanquish the sinister side of the force permanently.

In simple terms, what the movie goer learns is what Goethe’s Faust learns: without the authentic feminine in one’s life one is lost. Furthermore, no science, no technology, no amount of money, fame, privilege, or property, and especially not even real sorcery, can heal the soul. The soul’s quest is the quest for authentic individuality, which, ironically, must be done with the proper balance with the “ultimate other” that takes the identity of the divine feminine. Thus, one’s relationship with evil is one’s relationship with the authentic feminine. How these relationships play out is how we find our hope or our doom.

 Works Cited

The Departed. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.

Falzon, Christopher. Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2002.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Trans. by Alice Raphael. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1980.

Holy Bible. KJV. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1998.

Lyden, John. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, Rituals. New York: New York UP, 2003.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999, pp. 3-116.

Oergel, Maike. Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815. Hawthorne, NY: Walter De Gruyter Inc., 2006.

The Prestige. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perfo. Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Cane, Scarlet Johansson. Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.

Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald. Orion Pictures Corp., 1991.

Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christiansen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee. Lucasfilm Ltd., 2005.


2 comments to The Hope of Evil: Faustian Themes in Modern Cinema

  1. Susan Paidhrin says:

    Wonderful and poignant exploration of a rich bed of themes. You have shown Faust to be everyman (and woman) through this sampling of his appearance in film. It seems evil is one of humanity’s early classrooms; a place where we cut our teeth on our own narcissism and inflated reason. Your instinct to return to the primal waters, the divine feminine who ensouls both genders, is a soothing balm.

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