The other night I was watching the old German silent movie version of Faust. I was watching it for the fame film imagery and special effects – including a fascinating scene of Faust’s village in which all of the sudden Mephisto appears over it, enshrouding it with evil and despair – specifically by introducing the Black Death. The scene is six minutes into this clip.
A bit later in the film – can’t find the clip on youtube – the people are dying and Church officials are trying to generate even more fear for their own nefarious purposes. A group of the villagers respond in defiance of the fear and the plague itself:
“We shall live! We shall love. We shall die dancing in each others’ arms!”
I don’t know if those lines were drawn directly from Goethe, but even as the film itself moved into the dark, the chant continued to resonate with me – and I think they may well be the most beautiful lines in cinema, in context (I don’t think the lines would have worked in a “talkie” and I probably would have been one of those anachronistic people who would have lamented the loss of something vital in silent film as the medium made the switch). Nietzsche did once comment that Goethe had “a kind of almost joyous and trusting fatalism” that has “faith that only in the totality everything redeems itself and appears good and justified.” If these lines are Goethe’s, they certainly back Nietzsche’s comment up.
Goethe was actually a political conservative, more than skeptical of the Enlightenment’s claim that social change could be safely accomplished through reason. But as we all learned in high school, he introduced redemption to the preexisting Faust mythos, and the striving for better as virtue. I’ve never actually tried to read a translation of Faust, and I’m skeptical that it’s worthwhile based on my school learning that the verses were intricately designed for the German language. But if the dancing-to-the-end theme is consistent with his work, I can understand the Jewish character in the 1980s film Reunion who refused to believe the Nazis could take over, because “this is the land of Goethe and Schiller!”
Anyway, if the world comes to an end on May 21 as the billboards claim, I’ll see you all on the dance floor before most of us descend to Hell. If it comes to moments, I hope I can remember my favorite line translated in the old French film King of Hearts: “Three minutes is great!”