Comics and straight men are the bearers of the high literature of the West: Parmenides and Socrates, Dante and Virgil, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Mel Blanc and Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello. Americans, sadly, don’t know the nonpareil pair of Mephisto and Faust, for a simple reason: Their creator, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, embedded their comic timing in verse that is at once so colloquial and so elevated that it defies translation (the best is a partial rendering by Samuel Taylor Coleridge). There are a few serviceable English versions of Faust, but none that gets the punchlines in the right place.
“Of all the negating spirits,” says the Lord to Mephistopheles in Faust’s Prologue in Heaven, “the jester (der Schalk) is least hateful to me.” The term “Schalk” denotes “rogue” as well as “wit.” Mephisto is not just a comedian, but a song-and-dance man, with a couple of solo musical numbers, rather like Joel Grey’s Cabaret emcee. He longs for absolute nothingness, but must content himself with destruction and perversion. It is gallows humor of a sort, but unlike the Jewish variety, lachen mit yashtsherkes (laughing with lizards). Jewish gallows humor is the sort of joke told by the condemned man; Mephisto’s are jokes told by the hangman. The cruel humor of the Theater of the Absurd is a pale echo of Goethe.
To a generation of Germans—from the early 1930s to the early 1960s—Mephistopheles was the actor Gustav Gründgens, whose Mephisto is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Here is the actor in the 1962 film version of Faust, serenading the seduced and soon-to-be-abandoned Gretchen with Goethe’s adaptation of Ophelia’s song from Hamlet (“Then up he rose ... Let in the maid, that out a maid/Never departed more”).
Mephisto takes an authentic enjoyment in the misery he brings about. He helps Faust seduce the innocent Gretchen, and gives her a sleeping potion that kills her mother; his obscene serenade draws out Gretchen’s brother, whom Faust will run through, whereupon Gretchen goes mad and drowns her and Faust’s baby. At the end of Part 1 of the drama she will go to her execution rather than escape with Mephisto and Faust.
Not since Garrick’s Hamlet has an actor owned a classic role as exclusively as Gründgens owned Goethe’s devil. It is unsettling that Gründgens, the stage personification of evil, was a protégé of Hermann Göring, but he got a quick de-Nazification after the war thanks to friends he had helped when it wasn’t inconvenient. Still, his sponsorship by the Nazi brass remained something of a national embarrassment.
Thanks to the 1981 film Mephisto adapted from Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel, Americans know something of the backstory to Faust better than the original. Starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, it won the Oscar for best foreign film. Brandauer is a good actor, but he was about as convincing in the role as Charlton Heston playing Moses.
Klaus Mann’s morality tale portrays Gründgens the actor as the incarnation of his signature character; in fact, Gründgens had an enormous range, portraying a dignified but fragile Philip II in Schiller’s Don Carlos as convincingly as the most banal musical comedy. The German public knew him best as a musical-comedy star in the 1938 Dancing on a Volcano with its hit song-and-dance number “The Night Isn’t Just There for Sleeping.” (The film depicts the 1830 revolution in France, and barely made it past the Nazi censors.)
A bisexual leftist, Gründgens briefly married Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika and worked with her brother Klaus at a Hamburg theater company in 1924; Gründgens then was engaged to Erika, and Klaus to the second female lead Pamela Wedekind, whose father Frank wrote the Lulu plays. According to credible accounts, Klaus Mann and Gründgens were lovers, as were Erika and Pamela. This was a generation that not only wrestled with its demons, but slept with them.
Gründgens’ marriage into the Mann family lasted barely three years. He dumped his friends and his politics when the Nazis came to power. Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto stuck to the facts closely enough to be banned briefly under Germany’s postwar libel law, with some license—for example, portraying Gründgens as a heterosexual masochist rather than as a gay man.
Klaus Mann reported that Gründgens (“Höfgen” in the novel):
makes the Prince of Hell into a ‘jester’—precisely the jester that the Lord of Heaven in his limitless beneficence recognizes in the Evil One, and occasionally dignifies his activity, for he is the least tiresome of all spirits who deny. He plays him as a tragic clown, as a diabolical Pierrot. The bald-shaved skull is powdered as white as his face; the eyebrows are drawn grotesquely upwards, the blood-red mouth is distended into a fixed smile. ... With the grace of a dancer, Hendrik-Mephisto glides onto the stage in his close-fitting costume of black silk. Deceptive tidbits of wisdom and dialectical jests emerge from his always-smiling blood-colored mouth with a playful precision that confuses and seduces.
In the novel and 1981 film, Mann tells us that Gründgens’ portrayal of Mephisto at the Prussian State Theater appealed to the Nazis, because, well, he’s Satan. His fictional stand-in for Goeing tells the actor, “You’ve made me understand this guy for the first time, dear fellow. He’s quite a splendid fellow! Don’t we all have something of him? I mean: Isn’t there a piece of Mephistopheles hiding inside every proper German, a piece of rogue and villain? If all we had was the Faustian soul—how would we get along? Our many enemies could live with that! No, no—Mephisto, he’s a German national hero. You can’t tell people that.” In the film, Göring speaks of “sacred evil.”
If that’s what Göring thought, it’s because he didn’t bother to read Faust to the end, where Mephisto is humiliated on a cosmically comic scale. Mephisto embodies Non-Being; he desires absolute nothingness and hates creation. Goethe’s personification of Non-Being was a stroke of artistic genius, and Gründgens channeled Goethe unerringly. We cannot think of Non-Being directly, explained the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger in his essay “What is Metaphysics?” because then we would be thinking of a Something. “Profound boredom, like a silent fog insinuating itself in the depths of existence, pulls things, others and oneself into it altogether with remarkable indifference. Such boredom reveals Being as a whole,” Heidegger explained, in a self-conscious riff on Mephisto.
Where Heidegger propounds Non-Being, Gründgens becomes Non-Being. How does an actor depict Nothingness? As Heidegger suggested, the corresponding affect is boredom. Gründgens makes his entrance 50 seconds into this clip from a 1962 film version in a pose of Zen-like stillness, the living image of nihility.
Mephisto had appeared to Faust in the form of a dog that steams and swells in the doctor’s study. Faust confronted the beast with various magical and religious formulas, and the devil materializes. He drawls in the tone of a bored bartender addressing an unruly customer: “Why all the noise? What’s the gentleman’s pleasure?” Gründgens lounges with the ennui of the exhausted voluptuary. When Faust demands to know what he is, Mephisto declares: “I am the spirit that always denies, for everything that comes to be goes rightly to its ruin.”
Gründgens does as little as possible, and his understatement is thunderous. Brandauer by contrast gives us an evil clown who squeals, prances and gesticulates, in an overacted reading that better suits Stephen King’s Pennywise than Mephisto.
Here (with a less-than-adequate translation in subtitles) is Mephisto’s wager with God over Faust’s soul in the Prologue in Heaven. The lithe dancer of 1938 in Klaus Mann’s account has put on some heft in this 1960 version. But Gründgens’ comic timing remains unerring. When God asks him: “Ist auf der Erde ewig dir nichts recht?” (Is nothing ever to your liking on Earth?), Mephisto answers, “Nein Herr! Ich find es dort, wie immer, herzlich schlecht.” (No Lord! I find it there, as always, haymishly bad.”
The scene paraphrases the Book of Job, with a twist: The biblical Satan torments Job by taking away everything he needs: cattle, children, and health. Mephisto torments Faust by offering him everything he might desire.
At the age of 25 Goethe had become the world’s most famous writer with The Sorrows of Young Werther, a bestseller in every European language. Werther belonged to the first generation of enlightened Europeans with the freedom to choose an identity. He wallows in Rousseau’s sentimentality, falls hopelessly in love with a married woman, and then shoots himself, provoking a wave of copycat suicides (still known as the “Werther effect”). Napoleon read the novel beneath the pyramids; Hegel still wore Werther’s signature blue jacket and yellow pants to Berlin salons in the 1820s.
We are an epoch away from Christopher Marlowe’s 1590 Doctor Faustus. Marlowe’s Faust despairs of salvation: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die: Ay, we must die an everlasting death.” He wants money and power: “Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,/Resolve me of all ambiguities,/Perform what desperate enterprise I will?/I’ll have them fly to India for gold …/I’ll levy soldiers with the coin they bring,/And chase the Prince of Parma from our land,/And reign sole king of all the provinces.” Faustus summons Mephistophilis (in Marlowe’s spelling) and he proposes a pact; Mephistophilis, a stuffy infernal civil servant, has to clear it with his supervisor, Lucifer.
We meet Goethe’s Faust—like Marlowe’s—in his study. He has spent a lonely life in study and attained a high reputation as a physician in time of plague, but has only concluded that it is impossible to know anything. An incantation summons the Earth-Spirit, the occult visage of nature, but the apparition is too terrible for Faust to behold. In despair Faust prepares to poison himself, but it is Easter morning and the sound of church bells breaks his resolve.
Mephisto (as we have seen) then appears to Faust and offers him the same deal that Marlowe’s Faustus proposed to the devil. But Faust responds with contempt (in Coleridge’s rendering):
What can’st though give,
Thou miserable fiend? Can man’s high spirit,
Full of immortal longings, be by such
As though art, comprehended? Thou profferest food
Which mocks its eager appetite; hellow god,
That melts like quicksilver in the grasping hand;
Game at which none e’er won; enchanting woman,
To lean upon my breast, and while she leans there
Woo with treacherous smiles another victim,
To sport and perish in them; and bright honour,
Object of highest worship, yet a meteor
Around which darkness closes.
Faust wants none of the devil’s perquisites. And unlike Marlowe’s character, he is indifferent to the disposition of his soul. Instead, he tells Mephisto, he wants life, to take in all the joy and sorrow of life with the rest of humanity.
Mephisto is amused: “Believe us, who have chewed on this tough crust for millennia,” he replies. “From the cradle to the grave, no-one has ever digested this lump of sourdough.”
Faust proposes not a pact, but a wager. He tells the devil:
… Could you
By flattery or spells, seduce me to the feeling
Of one short throb of pleasure; let the hour
That brings it be my last …
And if at any moment I exclaim
“Linger, still linger, beautiful illusions,”
Then throw me into fetters; then I’ll sink,
And willingly, to ruin.
Here Goethe sideswipes the German Romantics, who celebrated the ecstatic moment of emotional enthusiasm. Wallowing in Ekstase persists in the underside of German thought from the Romantics through to Heidegger. If the fervor of the moment controls you, your soul is lost—a warning that German history would have done well to heed. Kierkegaard’s distinction between the aesthetic and the ethical and between Romantic and married love is a commentary on Faust. The ethical and the aesthetic are a recurring theme in the work of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who thus owed an indirect intellectual debt to Goethe.
None of Mephisto’s illusions will make Faust grasp at the fleeting moment—not the Romantic love of the innocent Gretchen, nor a position of power at the emperor’s court, nor even the love of Helen of Troy, the embodiment of classical beauty. He declares with his last breath, “Only he deserves freedom as well as life who must conquer them every day.” That is quite different from Marlowe’s Faust, who throws himself into every illusion.
Marlowe’s devil gets his victim, while Goethe’s gets his comeuppance: He cannot undo the hated work of Creation. “That which oppose itself to Nothing, this Something—this ungainly world—I’ve never been able to get the better of it,” he told Faust at their first meeting. He cannot destroy, only pervert.
At the conclusion of Part 2 his perversity does him in. Mephistopheles stands guard over Faust’s body, ready to snatch the soul as it issues from the body. A troop of cherubs arrives, and lust for the pre-pubescent angels overwhelms the old devil. “You could go around decently naked,” he exclaims—“those long gowns are far too modest! They’re turning around—now I see them from behind! The little rogues are just too appetizing!” A paroxysm of perverse attraction leaves Mephisto helpless. It’s hard to explain to an English-speaking audience that it’s one of the funniest scenes in all of theater. I guess you had to be there.
Faust opens with a paraphrase of Job, and Mephisto’s commentary on life draws liberally from Ecclesiastes, as the German Orthodox scholar Isaac Rosenberg observed. Goethe’s borrowings from the Bible are well documented; less well known is that Orthodox Jewish interpreters of the Bible borrowed from Goethe. In a 2010 Tablet essay, I noted that Rabbi Michael Friedländer, the translator of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed as well as the Tanakh, quoted Faust in his rendering of Kohelet (3:14-15), the famous verse about time and eternity, in an idiosyncratic but convincing way:
I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; and God does it, so that men should fear before him. That which is, already has been; and that which is to be has already been; and only God can find the fleeting moment.
The text says literally “HaElohim y’vakesh et-ha-nardaf,” “God seeks that which is pursued.” The meaning of the text is obscure. But any contemporary German would have seen straightaway that Friedländer had paraphrased Goethe to clarify it. Goethe’s time is biblical rather than Aristotelian: It is time that is not perceived by passive contemplation but constituted by purposeful action. The sages taught that man is called to join God in the work of Creation, and that his first creative act is to join God in creating sacred time: “A person who recites [the blessing] Vayekhelu on the eve of Shabbat is considered as if he were a partner with God in the work of creation” (Shabbat 119b). Goethe’s Faust thus is biblical in metaphysics as well as form.
Klaus Mann’s claim that Goethe’s stage devil inspired the devilish Nazis makes for good cinema, but it is alien both to Goethe’s play and to Gründgens’ interpretation. Gründgens for that matter was more complicated than Mann suggests. At the end of the novel, a young communist confronts Höfgen at his home, to report the defiant last words of a communist friend who died under Nazi torture: “We will win!” The actor convulses with guilt.
In reality, Gründgens stuck his neck out for his friends. At some personal risk, he saved the life of the communist actor Ernst Busch, a friend since the two played Schiller’s William Tell together in 1921. Busch had starred in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in 1928, and spent the next decade as the musical voice of the Comintern. If Goethe’s Mephistopheles had an avatar in 20th-century German theater, it was the communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, in verses like the “Song of the Insufficiency of Human Striving,” sung here by Busch. (Brecht himself sang it even more nastily.)
In 1942 Busch was caught trying to escape from a work camp, and was sent to Berlin to stand trial for high treason. Gründgens, then head of the Prussian State Theater, hired lawyers who argued that because Busch had been stripped of German citizenship he could not commit treason. The argument stuck, and Busch was imprisoned rather than shot. When the Russians liberated Busch in 1945, he returned the favor as a character witness for Gründgens, who returned to the stage with Russian approval. Visiting Berlin in 1946, Klaus Mann saw his former lover receive a standing ovation. Mann, chronically depressed, addicted to opiates and sexually omnivorous, killed himself in Cannes three years later.
Gründgens was a self-promoting opportunist who shamefully lent legitimacy to the Nazis. He also preserved some of what was great and good in German culture, and his 1960 film version of Faust is the best piece of theater I’ve ever seen.
It was left to Klaus’ father Thomas Mann to write the epilogue to the whole miserable story. Written during the war and published in 1948, Doctor Faustus remains the Jahrhundertsroman—the definitive novel of the 20th century. Its protagonist the composer Adrian Leverkühn stands in for the whole of German culture. With his creative source exhausted, Leverkühn makes a deal with the devil, who appears as an hallucination brought on by syphilis: He will abjure love in return for 24 productive years, and a new and original system of composition.
Mann based this system on the composer Arnold Schönberg’s system of 12 equal tones arranged in various mathematical combinations, a repudiation of Western harmony. The novel draws a parallel between the sterility of artistic modernism and Germany’s own deal with the devil during the interwar years. Leverkühn enters the final stage of dementia as he completes his cantata “The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus.” He gasps to the novel’s narrator, “I want to take it back—I want to take back Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”
That is a stunning insight. The Modernists were sterile, Thomas Mann warns. They could not create anything new. They could only destroy our capacity to understand what was good and beautiful in the old.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, Mann published a patriotic essay titled “Thoughts in Wartime,” arguing that the same qualities that made a good artist—discipline, organization and a predilection to take existential risk—also made a good warrior. That, I argued in a 2010 essay for this publication, helps explain the quality of classical music in Israel: “The sense of a future in Western classical music evokes the basic emotions with which human beings regard the future, namely hope and fear. When Israeli musicians speak of performing with a sense of risk, they mean the capacity to sustain hope in the presence of fear. It takes a certain kind of personality to do this on the concert stage, with all the attendant artistic and technical demands. Israel, whose existential premise is the triumph of hope over fear, incubates a disproportionately large number of musicians with this sort of personality.”
Faust’s valedictory declaration—“Only he deserves freedom as well as life who must conquer them every day”—tasted foul in the mouths of Thomas Mann’s generation. Germany had been looking for risk in all the wrong places. When Gründgens recreated his Mephisto in 1960, an older generation of Germans still remembered what Goethe had represented before the Nazis took power; three years later the actor was dead in a Manila hotel room, a probable suicide. By 1981, when Brandauer’s version reached the cinemas, the Germans couldn’t tell Mephisto from Pennywise.
David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.