by Kathie Smith
Leave it to Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov to reinvent one the West’s most enduring legends with a striking visual vocabulary that also feels like wholesale innovation. Using Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic play as his primary source of inspiration, Sokurov taps into some of Peter Greenaway’s unnerving sense of tactility and fabricates a freeform adaptation of Faust, which is finally getting a US release two years after winning the Golden Lion in Venice. Steering clear of the overly dramatic romanticism on which most adaptations of this moral tale tend to rely, Sokurov instead sets his sights on the sympathetic frustrations and desires of a misguided Everyman, imbuing the play’s richly thorny narrative with an atmospheric quagmire of corporeal eccentricity that hovers so close to humanity and the terra firma you can smell the vulnerability and taste the dirt.
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Producers: Leonid Choub, Andrey Sigle
Writers: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (play), Yuri Arabov, Aleksandr Sokurov, Marina Koreneva
Cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel
Editor: Jörg Hauschild
Music: Andrey Sigle
Cast: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk, Georg Friedrich
Premiere: September 8, 2011 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 15, 2013
US Distributor: Leisure Time Films
Sokurov wastes no time in evoking large themes with the film’s opening shot, in which the camera descends from the heavens in omniscient fairy-tale fashion only to land, quite suddenly, on a corpse’s blemished penis. Caught between this macrocosm of the heavens and the microcosm of human physiology is Dr. Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler), who is dissecting a cadaver with his assistant Wagner (George Friedrich). Wagner verbally taunts Faust by claiming that, even with his all of his scientific hubris, he is still unable to instruct his students on the location of the soul. Although Faust dismisses his query as he yanks entrails from his specimen’s gut, Wagner’s criticism strikes a cord that has no doubt been lingering in the enlightened doctor: Why do his empirical skills fail to unlock the so-called mysteries of God?
In a slight deviation from Goethe, money, a root of evil that is as modern as it is Biblical, leads Faust to his fateful meeting with Mephistopheles, who in this case takes not the form of a dog but a moneylender named Mauricius (Anton Adassinsky). Wagner mentions in passing that the devil is where the money is, and Faust seems to use his empty coffers as an excuse to tempt fate and seek the help of Mauricius. Although Mauricius is not interested in the garish ring that Faust wishes to pawn, the two men nevertheless have an immediate unspoken kinship that allows them to develop a fervent push-pull relationship. They take a walk around the village amounting to a combative pas de deux, and their escapades are nothing short of a medieval bromance with a sour air of lechery.
Mauricius’ attempts to uncover a vice that he can prey upon finally pay off when he escorts Faust through a bathhouse full of women and Faust becomes helplessly infatuated with Gretchen (Isolda Dychauk). In a fit of joy over his success, Mauricius proceeds to expose himself, both figuratively and literally—a surreal manifestation of a demon with a pear shape body of lumpy flesh, a nubby tail, yet no genitals. Neither Faust nor the women in the bathhouse seem the least bit alarmed, perhaps both aware and comfortable with the devil’s presence if it means an ounce of pleasure. Under the manipulative hand of Mauricius, Faust’s aspirations for higher learning are redirected to a blind passion for Gretchen. Mauricius gets his signed contract, but little does he know that once Faust gets what he wants, his will to power is far greater than an agreement signed in blood. Faust has the last laugh as he buries Mauricius under a pile of rocks and sets off on his own adventure in a landscape of purgatory.
As with nearly every version of the fable, Faust’s yearning, both intellectual and sexual, leads him down a corruptible road of discovery—a timeless parable for humanity and an affective exemplum for Sokurov’s final chapter in his “tetralogy of power.” Like Moloch (1999) about Adolf Hitler, Taurus (2001) about Vladimir Lenin, and The Sun (2005) about Japanese emperor Hirohito, Sokurov brings a similar empathy to his exploration of man’s debased abuse of power in Faust, but with more allegorical and phantasmagorical overtones. With Faust, Sokurov takes more artistic license to interpret mankind’s modern transcendence of moral parameters and divine retribution through Faust’s innocuous romp and tumble into the pit of earthly desires.
Although Faust is a thicket of thematic parables and verbose debates, they end up taking a backseat to the grandiose palette lit with an amber light reminiscent of the Dutch and Flemish painters and further embellished with fantastical non-sequiturs. Shot in the nearly square Academy ratio, with the corners rounded as if it were a family heirloom photo, Sokurov and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (best known for his atmospheric work on Amélie, Across the Universe and the upcoming Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis) weave swathes of breathtaking moments that resonate unconsciously: an overhead view of Faust and Gretchen symbolically falling into a lake, an abstruse glimpse of a spirit bear in the lush green forest. But such moments are also juxtaposed with items from a cabinet of curiosity: an egg that is pulled from a woman’s vagina, a haunting human-like organism grown in a jar. These are the things dreams and nightmares are made of, intertwined between Goethe and Jung, physics and mystics, man and nature.
If the purpose of movies is to excite the mind and invigorate the senses, Faust excels like few others. And while it keeps an emotional connection to its characters at arms’ length, that same sort of stirring gravity nonetheless exists in its aesthetic virtuosity. Faust was partially funded by Vladimir Putin, a fact that threatens to pull the film and the director not only into a political debate but also into analogies about moneylenders and power mongers that would not be unwarranted. But Sokurov’s film rises above such extratextual considerations with its willfully sybaritic cerebral and optical rigors and its open-ended abstractions, and furthermore finds the 62-year-old director, whose oeuvre we have yet to fully appreciate, working at the peak of his artistic powers.
(Originally published on In Review Online.)