Faust on film

Walter Benjamin and the cinematic ontology of Goethe’s Faust 2

RP 172 () / Article

Isn’t it an affront to Goethe to make a film of Faust, and isn’t there a world of difference between the poem Faust and the film Faust? Yes, certainly. But, again, isn’t there a whole world of difference between a bad film of Faust and a good one? (Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, N1a, 4)

Whilst the importance of Goethe’s thought in the early work of Walter Benjamin has been acknowledged, less attention has been paid to the Goethean references that resurface in his final essays, specifically the Faustian motifs of the last theses On the Concept of History. Drawing on the cinematic afterlife of Goethe’s Faust, this article utilizes Benjamin’s own pragmatic conception of history to argue that its importance for Benjamin resides in the articulation of a cinematic ontology that comes increasingly to underpin his own mature philosophy.


The influence of Goethe’s epistemology can be traced across Benjamin’s writings, notably in the afterword to his early essay on Early German Romanticism, the prologue to the Origin of German Mourning-Plays, and in the notes for the unfinished Arcades Project.13 The last sought to grasp the ascent and decline of the Paris arcades as a ‘primal history’ of modernity itself, according to a Goethean conception of the arcade’s concrete historical forms as primal phenomena (Urphänomen) which render perceptible their immanent economic forces.14 Benjamin claims that he transposes Goethe’s concept of truth from the domain of nature to that of history, in line with a materialist version of the theory of original phenomenon (Ursprungsphänomen) delineated in his own prologue to the Origin of German Mourning-Plays. The prologue insists that the concept of Ursprung must be distinguished from any neo-Kantian formulation as the logical ground of experience, on the basis of a historico-phenomenal notion of the Ideal, such that ‘Ideas … are the Faustian Mothers’ and truth is ‘visualized in the circling dance of represented Ideas [vergegenwärtigt im Reigen der dargestellen Ideen]’.15As Philip Brewster and Carl Howard Buchner have pointed out, this image of the Mothers entails the ‘Symbolist assertion of the expressive function of language as representation and its constituent idea of construction’: ‘in the words of the Symbolist Paul Valéry … language does not walk to a goal, it only dances.’16

This Faustian imagery resurfaces in Benjamin’s final essays, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire and the theses On the Concept of History. The former rejects Proust’s and Bergson’s claim to actualize a true experience of the past via the mémoire involontaire or the durée of pure memory.17 In accordance with his emphasis on the aesthetic construction of truth, Benjamin claims that it is not in the contemplative ease of Bergson’s durée that the true significance of modern experience becomes apparent, but in what he identifies as the poet Paul Valéry’s struggle to represent such an experience. Where Bergson and Proust seek to actualize the past in the present, ‘Bergson sees within reach what Valéry’s better, Goethean understanding visualizes as the “here” in which the inadequate becomes perceptible’ (das ‘hier’ in dem das Unzulängliche Ereignis wird).18 Benjamin’s reference is to the refrain of the Chorus Mysticus at the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust 2, but the mention of Valéry in this 1939 essay suggests a familiarity with the French poet’s intention to begin work on a ‘third’ version of the play, published as Mon Faust in 1941.19 Kurt Weinberg has suggested that the resistance of Valéry’s protagonist to the temptations of the second Fay (Memory) in Mon Faust reflects a rejection of Proust’s and Bergson’s promised experience of the past as one of mere semblance, arguing that this Faust is imbued with his author’s wisdom that ‘to live is to lack something at every moment’.20 Benjamin’s deployment of the Chorus Mysticus against Proustian and Bergsonian actualization suggests a similar understanding of the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust 2. At the conclusion of the play, Faust’s incessant striving is subverted into an experience of fulfilment, itself saturated with impossibility and incompletion: a completion only possible in Faust’s death (as István Mészáros notes, Faust’s mistaken enthusiasm for the noise of his own gravediggers is an ironic wish fulfilment: the ‘actual realization of the great Faustian dream’).21 Valéry’s return to these themes at the end of the 1930s may account for the resurfacing of these Faustian motifs in Benjamin’s last essay, On the …