DIRECTED BY: Aleksandr Sokurov
FEATURING: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk
PLOT: A doctor who’s bored with life sells his soul to a Moneylender in exchange for one night with a beautiful young woman.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Though it can be stuffy, this hallucinatory version of Faust also brings us monkeys on the moon, a gynecological exam utilizing hard-boiled eggs, and an inexplicable ending that sees the title character apparently trapped in an afterlife that looks like a volcanic island of the coast of Iceland. Literary-minded weirdophiles may want to stump for this subtle and intelligent, but somewhat confused, movie to take up a slot on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made, but it’s not inspiring enough to make it on the first ballot.
COMMENTS: Aleksandr Sokurov’s adaptation of Faust keeps the central story and conflict, presenting the tragic tale of a jaded natural philosopher who finds further dissatisfaction in his pursuit of Earthly pleasure and power, but the Russian director’s take may not please everyone. Goethe’s epic poem/play, the take on the Germanic legend which most informs Sokurov’s, was full of phantasmagorical digressions, such as a parade of pagans during Walpurgis Night. So is Sokoruv’s version; but the digressions are not the same, and the director adopts Goethe’s method as a license to pursue his own visions, wherever they might take him. What is poetic on the printed page becomes a dream when filmed.
The biggest change from play to screen is a change in the “party of the second part” in the eternal contract for Faust’s soul from the devil Mephistopheles to a decrepit old man known as the Moneylender. Rather than a suave Satanic seducer, the Moneylender is a wrinkled nuisance, sly but with degraded manners (when he’s warned not to defecate outside the Church, he decides to do his business inside). Although Faust does pursue a woman, believing that carnal love will fill the empty space in his soul when philosophy and drink have failed, his primary relationship in the movie is with the Moneylender, who acts as a fatalistic conscience. The Moneylender’s surprising bath scene, which makes you think that a nude scene from the Elephant Man might not have been so bad, is the movie’s boldest moment.
It has been noted that Sokoruv’s film favors earth tones, rich browns and shadowy greens, and looks like the works of an old Dutch Master; but it’s worth pointing out further that the image here is also frequently murky and smudged, like a Rembrandt before restoration. Sokoruv’s choice to forgo widescreen vistas for the outdated 4:3 aspect ratio makes Faust cramped and claustrophobic; even when we’re outdoors, the movie feels like it’s playing out in a dingy room at the top of the stairs, lit by sunlight coming through a filthy window. At times (seemingly at random) he adds a queasy distorting lens. My suspicion is that the film’s grimy look is meant to evoke the filthiness and decay of the medieval milieu—the events seem to take place at the height of the Black Death, and there are coffins, funerals, and corpses everywhere (the movie even starts with a shot of a cadaver penis).
Although the film moves slowly, it’s extremely dialogue-dense, philosophical, and challenging for non-German speakers unfamiliar with the source material, who may find themselves quickly left behind. While Sokurov’s Russian Ark was esoteric in its subject matter, it was clearly motivated by a desire to explore Russian culture and its relationship to the West. His Faust is hermetic at its core. Although Faust is officially part of a quadrilogy which also includes biopics of Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito, it’s unclear precisely what the director’s intended spin on the legend is, or why he lumped a fictional philosopher in with historical tyrants. He’s changed enough of Faust to make the story his own, but the film doesn’t explain the reasons for the alterations it makes; it doesn’t do a clear job justifying itself and explaining why we needed this skewed take on the legend. Perhaps there is no justification to be had, and none needed. Goethe began his second book of his “Faust” with a prologue in which he sang “Let Reason be the thrall of Magic, and let bold Phantasy appear/In all her freedom, all her glory.” That could be the ancient anthem of the weird aesthetic, and perhaps Sokurov is merely heeding its call.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: