DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer
FEATURING: Petr Cepek
PLOT: A grim “Everyman” is lured to a decaying theater and prompted to re-enact an adaptation of the Faust legend, with the lines of reality and fiction frequently skewed.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Svankmajer offers a strange and twisted version of the famous story with little in the way of exposition or explanation. Humans interact with claymation figures and life-size puppets, the scenery changes without warning from theatrical sets to real-life exteriors, and mysteries and ambiguities abound. While the foundations of the Faust tale are definitely there, they’ve been contorted and disguised into true Svankmajer surrealism.
COMMENTS: I haven’t actually read any of the multiple versions of the Faust legend (most notably adapted by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe), so Svankmajer’s film was my introduction. The wordless opening depicts a sullen middle-aged man who is given a map with a red dot. After some strange happenings in his apartment, he decides to follow it and ends up in a dark theater populated by a silent crew and an array of stop-motion oddities. For reasons unknown, he dresses himself up as Faust and begins reading the script aloud, eventually making his way to a stage facing a recently-assembled audience. He gets stage fright and abandons the costume and stage, but continually finds himself back in character, summoning the devil’s demonic aid Mephisto, signing away his soul, and generally making a black magical mess of things. His real life merges seamlessly with his performance, as he switches back and forth between puppet form and human form, painted backdrops and the streets of Prague.
What makes Faust so puzzling is the lead character’s complete refusal to question what is happening to him—the viewer is in the dark for the entirety of the film, left to either coax out some explanation for the events onscreen or abandon any attempt at making sense of things (I opted for the latter). Our Everyman is compelled to act out the legend, with demonic apparitions and mysterious sights appearing in both the “stage” version and his supposedly real life, casting a dreamlike shadow over all of the proceedings. Two silent and conniving fellows follow him around, manipulating his actions without clear motivation. Like a more horrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the protagonist seems lost and aimless until he is speaking pre-penned lines out of a Faust script, eventually becoming the character he speaks for simply because there is little other choice. His strange experience is revealed to be cyclical: a host of unassuming “Everymen” have surely fallen prey to Faust‘s allure.
Regardless of the story’s meandering, perplexing structure, the imagery alone is enough to captivate any weird viewer. A clay baby forms itself out of an hourglass and proceeds to evolve through all the stages of life; huge wooden heads roll down a mountain path and assemble themselves into puppet forms of an angel and a devil; a restaurant table inexplicably spouts wine; a host of puppet royalty drowns in a painted sea; Mephisto takes on the eerily sculpted appearance of Petr Cepek when he speaks; a team of ballerinas harvest hay in unison; a human man gets down and dirty with a wooden devil disguised as a female puppet. It’s all there, and more! Along with, of course, Svankmajer’s noted ear for terrific and often unsettling sound effects.
It’s weird, it’s confusing, it’s imaginative: Faust transforms a familiar tale into a strange and compelling dream. The words remain true to the source material, but all of the visuals are wonderfully bizarre and often without precedent.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Svankmajer introduces a dark, squishy, perversely surreal world: It’s part Lewis Carroll, part Kafka, part David Lynch and absolutely not American… Using stylistic elements that he’s developed over 40 years of film making — live action and stop-motion animation, wooden and clay figures, grotesque imagery and vivid sound effects — Svankmajer creates the warped, disturbing logic of a bad dream.”–Edward Guthman, San Francisco Chronicle