[SFF 2012: Review] Faust
(For our previous coverage of Faust, see HERE.)
The winner of the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, Faust is the latest cinematic interpretation (via the adaptations of Johann von Goethe and Thomas Mann) of the tale of Doctor Faust and his pact with the devil. Tackling such a seminal text is not for the faint-hearted – not only because of its depth, but also its breadth. Lucky, then, that this incarnation is helmed by master of the epic, Aleksandr Sokurov.
The Russian Arc director has chosen to concentrate on the narrative of Dr Faust (Johannes Zeiler) and his fatal obsession with town beauty Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), which makes sense considering the instantly accessible “hero pursues lust at all costs” storyline, but neglects to explore the meta-setting for the tale: the heavenly wager made by God with the Devil that Faust can’t be led astray.
The film doesn’t suffer by this omission, but it does render it a worldly story. In Goethe’s poem, God makes a presumption in favour of human goodness, so you figure it’ll turn out that way in the end – he is God, after all. But here, it’s a disaster of human proportions. A villager tells us early on that “there is no good in the world, only evil”, and nothing in the ensuing two hours suggests any differently. Zeiler’s Faust is weak, and is effortlessly manipulated by Mephistophelean moneylender Mauricius (Anton Adassinsky). And who can blame him, when their first meeting sees Mauricius drain the suicidal Doctor’s bottle of hemlock and not even flinch? I’d be impressed too. Mind you, I’d also be impressed by Adassinsky’s fat suit – one of the most alarming prosthetic costumes ever created, a kind of full-size Gollum outfit complete with tiny hairless genitals hanging where his buttocks should be. Wow.
Sokurov has approached the task with his familiar palette of the meditative, the balletic and the grotesque, and this combination creates some striking effects that bring to mind the work of Peter Greenaway or Guillermo del Toro. It’s a surprising pleasure, for example, to glide through the disgusting 19th century town via a beautifully-choreographed camera. It’s perfectly ironic to be subjected to a dismembering sequence, complete with steaming organs falling out of body cavities, while a thoughtful internal monologue ponders the existence of the human soul. And it’s especially great when Dr Faust finally sits down to sign away said soul, only to criticise the spelling mistakes made by its devilish author.
All in all: a solid contribution to the Faustian legacy.