Film Review: Faust

Taking highbrow to the edge of slapstick, Alexander Sokurov&#8217;s idiosyncratic adaptation of Goethe&#8217;s <i>Faust </i>will intrigue some and turn off others.

Billed as the final part of Alexander Sokurov’s tetralogy on the nature of power, Faust is the most difficult of the four films, which includes the Russian director’s visions of Adolf Hitler (Moloch), Vladimir Lenin (Taurus) and Emperor Hirohito (The Sun.)  Drawn from literature rather than history, Faust raises the power stakes to an epic struggle between a man who thirsts for intellectual dominion and the Devil himself. The expressionistic filmmaking lets loose in an idiosyncratic style of chaotic slapstick, in which frenetic theatrical acting contrasts with deformed visuals that can barely contain the actors. This piece of highbrow entertainment received a very mixed critical reception at its 2011 Venice bow, and will struggle to take wing outside festival and showcase screenings where its qualities can shine.

The opening titles announce the screenplay is based on Goethe’s two-part tragedy (finished in 1808 and 1832), though visual citations range from Rembrandt to F.W. Murnau, whose silent work featuring Emil Jannings as Mephisto remains a benchmark for Faust on film. Sokurov has said that his is not so much an adaptation as a “reading of what remains between the lines,” and that is a pretty accurate assessment. In fact, audiences with no prior knowledge of the story are likely to be lost at sea and looking for narrative handholds.

The film opens with an awe-inspiring CGI descent from the heavens to a bustling, stone-paved German town. The costumes and sets don’t connote a definite time, which could be anywhere between Shakespeare’s day and the early 19th century. The opening shot of Dr. Faust (Johannes Zeiler) gruesomely dissecting a corpse, viewed from the penis up to its bowel-less interior, makes it clear this is not going to be a romantic walk through the rose garden. While he hacks away at the body, he debates the exact location of the soul with his assistant, proudly asserting, “The God who shakes me inside is powerless outside of me.” Fighting words, metaphysically speaking.

Torrents of dialogue pour out, making it necessary for non-German speakers to speed-read through cascading subtitles. This is far from a dull, academic work and the fast-paced talk is matched by swiftly changing scenes full of vibrant visuals. Life bubbles out of each frame in a grungy, foul-smelling rush.

Hunger drives the good doctor to visit a chatty old money-lender (Anton Adasinskiy) whose cobwebby shop is full of strange objects. He rejects all the trifles Faust offers to pawn, finally getting the doctor’s “autograph” in blood. Though he modestly denies he’s the Devil, when he strips naked to bathe in front of dozens of washerwomen, his body is as lumpy as an alien’s and, telling detail, his miniscule male organ is placed in the back, where a tail might be expected.

Faust is not impressed, or at least shows no sign of fear; on the contrary, he seems to enjoy the company of his ugly but witty companion who careens around the sets, joking and fighting. They descend into an underground tavern where Faust is egged on to kill a young soldier. The dead man unfortunately turns out to be the brother of Margarete (Isolde Dychauk), an ethereal-looking young girl Faust lusts after the moment he lays eyes on her. Again, their meeting at the boy’s funeral is more comic than romantic, and in the end the girl doesn’t need much convincing to spend a night with her brother’s murderer, while her drugged mother sleeps in the bed beside them. Everyone, the Devil notes, knows exactly what leads them to hell—and they do it anyway.

No more is heard of Margarete after this; for more information about her fate, read the book. Sokurov is interested only in his hero and his challenge to the greatest Power of them all. Actually, Heaven is pretty much out of the picture. (“Good doesn’t exist,” says the Devil, “but evil does.”) The final scenes reserve some surprises after the Devil, having kept his side of the bargain, claims Faust’s soul and drags him to the boiling, gushing craters of Hell, shot in Iceland around dramatic geysers.

Zeiler, a relatively unknown actor outside of German TV, energetically fills the main role with quick intelligence and unflagging self-confidence, which helps the viewer negotiate the dangerous ground he walks on. The Russian-born Dychauk has a delicately eerie white face out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. She seems to be disturbed but not shocked by the strange goings-on around her, even when Faust’s student of alchemy (Georg Friedrich) tries to impress her with a live homunculus he has created.

Dressed in a bouncy costume that would have looked becoming on the Black Queen in a card deck, Hanna Schygulla’s stray walk-ons as the pawnbroker’s wife are unsettling but lend little to the story.

This is a film that owes a great deal to the look created by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Elena Zhukova. The choice to use a very square frame underlines the constriction the characters are under. Delbonnel’s painterly lighting effects are often quite breathtaking, as in the dissecting and bathing scenes; other shots are disconcertingly tilted and foreshortened, as though widescreen was being forced into a narrow format.

Zhukova’s dense, very cramped sets are filled to bursting with characters who comically climb over one another, as though they were maneuvering around a small theatre stage instead of a soundstage at Prague’s Barrandov Studios.

The Hollywood Reporter