17 May 2009

How Much Do You Want for That Soul? Two Perspectives on a Timeless Classic


Part One: The Germans

There are two film versions of the sell-your-soul-to-the-devil story that I'm particularly fond of. Both have German roots. The more recent is Mephisto (1981) which was made in Germany by a joint German, Austrian, Hungarian company. I wrote about a few months ago and this sentence is linked to that post. The older version is The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) made in these United States but by native German director William Dieterle. I wrote about the soul-seller in the film, Jabez Stone in February and this sentence is linked to that post.

Of course one of the origins of these stories is Goethe's Faust and yes Goethe was German. Other artistic renditions of the story have been created by Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, F.W. Murnau and Thomas Mann. The nationalities of these gents is Austrian, Hungarian, German and German, respectively.

Hmmm....

What makes German so intrigued by and adept at telling the story of man who will give his very soul for fame and riches? I could go all Hitler on you here but only one of these tellings (Mephisto) relates to Nazism. Also, only Mephisto and the '41 film came after Hitler assumed power.

More likely the story resonates with Germans because of its origins in their legends. Add to that the many superior German artists and you have a likely explanation.

Dieterle's telling is a wonderful combination of a powerful story made in a style of film making that came out of German studios in the Weimar days. Many of those film makers fled Germany when Hitler came to power and re-settled in the U.S. where they made invaluable contributions to Hollywood (among them Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Ernest Lubitsch).

Dieterle, along with cinema photographer Joseph August, created a wonderfully atmospheric story that is an example of the black and white at its best. It owes much to the German expressionist films of those heady pre Hitler days. The use of light and shadow through such elements fire, clouds and moonlight are wonderfully evocative. Resulting special effects (sans computers, no less) coupled with a bravura performance by Walter Huston make this a great film.

Part Two: The USA Today

Raise your hand if you can think of a person in this country who recently realized untold riches only to end up in the gray bar motel because his gains were ill gotten? Who said Bernie Madoff? Well done. It's not as if Madoff was one-of-a-kind. He was just the most pernicious and greedy. There are many, many more and they have long held an unhealthy influence on American politics. Greed has been a dominant influence in our nation's history. And unlike Madoff most do not pay for their sins in this life.

Once Jabez Stone got his he turned his back on neighbors (not literally, of course, he had to have his hand out to them to take the cash they owed). Enough would never suffice. Jabez had to have more money. It's like the Americans today who whine incessantly about a three per cent increase in taxes. Freedom to some is the freedom to make as much money as they possible without the government getting their mitts on a penny of it. Jabez gave not to his fellows but wrung them for all they were worth and built himself an ostentatious mansion.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is like many films made in the FDR years. It celebrates the notion of community, people pulling together for the common good (socialists!!!). Government is represented as an often benevolent body that can be a force for good. Take Senator Daniel Webster who is celebrated by the struggling New Hampshire dirt farmers as a politician who looks out for their interests. These men do not look at government as evil. Nonsense. A government of, by and for the people is their friend. Hell, it's them.

No, people do not literally make deals with Satan (that we know of) but they might as well for all the parts of their souls that are lost in their pursuit of riches, fame and power. Rare is the person who realizes the rags to riches American dream without selling off bits of their integrity. In the bargain they lose what is one of the best in all people, the capacity to accept and love other people. More precisely, people who they cannot further profit from financially.

Jabez Stone has the good fortune of being represented by Daniel Webster. So eloquent a man that he can sway a jury of the damned. He not only saves Stone's soul but makes a Scroogeian transformation, joins the farmers' Grange vowing to work with not against his neighbors (socialist!!!).

Surely the U.S .would be better off today if some of our richest had to face eternal damnation before actually shuffling off this mortal coil. Maybe they too could realize the greedy errors of their ways and reform.

Hey, a fella can dream, can't he?

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