Opera Meets Film: How ‘Mefistofele’ Scene Contextualizes Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ Trilogy As Faustian Myth

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment is Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.”

Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy is undeniably one of the greatest sagas of the 21st century. A plethora has been written on its middle installment, “The Dark Knight,” which for many (myself included) is the ultimate superhero film. Its immediate sequel “The Dark Knight Rises” has also managed to garner a tremendous amount of attention, even not all of it is as laudatory. 

The film that often gets overlooked is “Batman Begins,” which in some ways might be the most essential of the three. It might never scale the philosophical and genre-bending ways of its sequel, but it is the perfect execution of an origin story, its dark mood ultimately changing the genre forever. Had “Batman Begins’” tonal shift toward the chiaroscuro been a bust, especially after the failure of more cartoony predecessors, who knows not only whether the trilogy ever comes to fruition, but where the genre as a whole winds up. 

Within that tonal shift is Nolan’s decision to deepen Batman’s mythos. And he does that through opera itself. 

Halfway through the first Act of the film, a young Bruce Wayne heads to the opera with his parents. The work on display? Boito’s “Mefistofele.” The scene we witness is none other than the Walpurgis Night, the demons and otherworldly creatures in rapture. The mise-en-scene kicks off with a shot of the devil himself dominating the stage and audience, before bats and other monsters move about the stage in frenzy. Nolan cuts back and forth between a close-up of the young Bruce, the bats onstage and then memories of Bruce’s earlier experience with bats in the Batcave. His fear ultimately leads to him leaving the venue alongside his parents, who are subsequently murdered. 

This scene operates on a number of levels. On a superficial level, we connect Batman’s fear of bats with the bats onstage. The choice of using bats in the production is obviously Nolan’s own creative license and his intent is to show that Bruce’s fear is so great that even people dressed in batsuits has an effect on him. Of course, it is this very fear that he will use against others later in the film. 

But the choice of opera is also quite essential. First off, “Batman Begins” is nothing if not a crime thriller, with Gotham itself a hell of sorts. The League of Shadows emphasizes as much and it is the corruption of the city and their desire to purge it of its evil that serves as their main motivation. Showing the Walpurgis Night, of all the scenes in this opera, is a subtle reminder that crime, evil, and deprivation make up Gotham. They “dominate the scene,” if you will. And in the very next scene, this evil will celebrate as Bruce’s father will be murdered. 

Bruce’s father is essential in connection with “Mefistofele” and the Faustian myth it tells. Bruce’s father is a “God” of sorts. He is rich, powerful, and as depicted in the film, a truly good man. Right before the opera scene, he tells Bruce of an investment in helping grow the city to rid it of poverty. When his family is in danger, he puts himself in front of the attacker to protect them. He is an all-benevolent father for Bruce, one murdered and done away with. 

After his father’s death, Bruce loses his way and ends up on the devil’s footsteps, though, like Faust in the opera, he has no idea of how evil his “Mefistofele” is. The character in question is, of course, Ra’s al Ghul, though he does not make his identity evident to Bruce. In the same manner that Mefistofele offers Faust youth in exchange for his soul, Ra’s offers to train Bruce and turn him into a dominant fighter so that he can have vengeance on those that murdered his father. Bruce accepts, but he ultimately sets out on his own path to redemption, as does Faust in the Boito opera.

What is most fascinating about this Faustian myth, is that it continues in the films thereafter. Bruce’s decision to ultimately don the cowl of Batman leads him, like Faust (in Boito’s opera, but especially in Goethe’s legendary work), through many challenging adventures that are never fulfilling and only cause harm to those he loves or cares for. We see this in how both Rachel Dawes and Faust’s beloved Margarita die prematurely due to Faust / Batman’s own selfish mistakes. Faust leaves Margarita pregnant to go on other adventures while Batman chooses to save Rachel out of his own personal needs rather than protect the man who could protect an entire city. 

The final film of the trilogy brings back the League of Shadows to exact revenge on Batman himself and finish the job of destroying Gotham. At the close of “Mefistofele,” Faust is old and has lost his way, his final aria speaking of a dream that no longer seems a possibility. At the start of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bruce is a recluse who has abandoned the world and lost his own sense of purpose. But both men regain that sense of purpose – Faust turns back to God and Bruce returns to his purpose of protecting Gotham, the city of his family. And both men experience true resurrection at the end of the long saga. Faust goes to heaven led by a chorus of angels, while Bruce, despite “dying” in an atomic explosion, remains alive at the close of the film. Both of their legends live on, the devil and its evil vanquished. 




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