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From acclaimed director Alexander Sokurov (RUSSIAN ARK, THE SUN), FAUST is an hallucinatory period piece set in the early 19th century and inspired by Goethe's famous play. Employing elaborate camera movements, a layered soundscape, intricate production design and spectacular locations, FAUST conjures a unique and phantasmagoric vision of the Faustian legend. The title character, played by Johannes Zeiler, is a man in search of the ideals of the Enlightenment but he becomes obsessed with the lovely Magarete (Isolda Dychauk) and sells his soul to the Devil (aka the Moneylender, played by Anton Adasinsky) so that he may possess her. Comic, cosmic, painterly and stunningly beautiful scenes unfold as the Devil takes Faust on a strange, unforgettable journey.
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Sadly I never read Goethe’s original story (either the original or in translation) but from summaries it seems the director Sokurov kept at least the kernel of the story intact.
This is the fourth of a tetralogy of films by Sokurov meditating on the nature of evil. The first 3 are based on real characters: Moloch [Hitler], Taurus [Lenin], The Sun [Hirohito], and then Faust, the main evil character in this film being the devil himself, or at the least one of his minions.
The films used Russian actors from the Saint Petersberg area, and for at least two of them, the voices were subsequently dubbed over by German actors from Berlin (as is the case here). Having studied some German years ago, I was able to make out snatches of the audio, but good American-English subtitling is provided. So in a sense, we are hearing dialog that started in Russian, then became German, then finally English in the subtitles.
The repeated translation of dialog is far from the only aspect making the film a little inscrutable. It’s almost like watching a dream unfold: the events as depicted are often hard to understand at least on the first viewing; often impossible or at least improbable from a strictly literal viewpoint, and obviously metaphorical in nature. The filming has a certain haziness about it reminiscent of a remembered dream, in which the central image was clear enough, but the background was somewhat hazy and hard to identify. Time doesn’t skip backward and forward but often skips forward abruptly from one scene to the next [not far forward, but at least some hours]. Sometimes scenes are almost frozen; at other times much action is taking place [without much explanation].
The centrality of the story of Faust is a man selling his soul to the Devil. I’m not clear on the “why” of Goethe’s original story, but in the film at least the Devil seems easy to find, while God is basically unseen. In fact one character goes so far as to say that he does not believe in God, but evil is obvious. Second reason [at least in the film]: Faust is of a somewhat philosophical bent, and seems to think the Devil will have a broader perspective on reality than he could. Third: he’s HUNGRY. As a doctor in a time of poverty, he himself goes to bed hungry, and doesn’t have enough to pay grave-diggers for patients who die. Fourth: for love [or lust?]. He has no family life and is enchanted by a young, single, common girl with beautiful ivory skin, piercing blue eyes and blonde hair [played by Isolde Dychauk]. Yet rather than asking for a full life with her: marriage, kids etc., he only asks for a single night….
Doctor Faust is played by Johannes Zeiler, with a combination of an aristocratic yet scruffy look, a kind and honest face but a gruff voice, which perhaps was a good way to show doctors in an age when the distinction between treating patients and conducting autopsies was hardly known; when surgery (without decent anesthesia) was perhaps the most successful practice, because antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals were pretty much unknown: a peculiar combination requiring the financial wherewithal for University study, but frequent witnessing of mortality in its most depressing forms.
Average people—in fact most people and places were shown with the kind of poverty one tends to associate with the Middle Ages, and the original story was set at about the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Goethe’s Faust had a major impact on later European thought and even on German expressions. Sokurov’s film, much shorter than the story, keeps some of the essential dynamics intact: good and evil, science vs religion, when the quest for knowledge leads us astray; wealth vs. poverty, the nature and possibility of redemption, but all infused with his own imagery. Though it is meant as the end of a tetralogy, I think it can be appreciated on its own. I’ve also located 2 of the other films on DVD with English translations, but haven’t yet found Taurus. This film at 132 minutes, seemed a lot longer since it requires constant attention, and is far from the usual Hollywood fare. Oh lastly I should mention, there’s little in the way of swear words (and the audio is in German anyhow), not a lot of violence but some definitely disturbing scenes, and some female nudity—in short, were it rated, it would probably get an “R”. Hopefully this will help someone considering whether or not they want to watch the film.
Powerful film, powerful vision, between Tarkovsky (Sokurov studied with him) and Wojciech Has (the film's atmospheres, between day-dreaming and nightmare, evoked The Hourglass Sanatorium). Sets and costumes are breathtakingly imaginative. The story draws partly on Goethe's Faust (and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus), excerpts of the original text are even used, and the costumes evoke the author's time, the early 19th century; but the action is situated in some sort of German medieval village or small town, with narrow, dark, filthy streets - an environment evocative of the late middle-Ages/early German Renaissance in which the action of Goethe's drama is supposed to take place. And never was I shocked by any semblance of contradiction; it is true that German culture nurtured for very long a kind of medieval fantasy, and, before they were bombed to ashes by the Allies' airforce, the German cities retained vivid traces of their medieval past.
The universe depicted by Sokurov is hunger-ridden (to point to the burning demands of the flesh maybe), in a jawdropping opening scene (double-meaning not intended - but now it is) Faust is dissecting a human cadaver and doesn't find the soul, his apprentice the simpleton Wagner seems to have understood more things than his master, Mephisto is a pawn-broker and a usurer (money is the Devil), half-man half animal wearing his small traces of manhood in the back.
Once in a while it is great to see true human mugs on the screen, faces that you can easily fancy are those you would have seen anytime in the past before our era of hygiene and phenomenal improvement in health conditions - or maybe these days still in Russia - rather than your blandly and anonymously handsome Hollywood star, young or old. It is like eating a real tomato, grown in the earth, not looking good, but tasting so rich. But Isolda Dychauk, the Russian-German actress who plays Margarete, seen through the eyes and camera of Sokurov, is of breathtaking, angelic beauty.
There's a great sense of humor also, especially located in the character of Mephisto. Anton Adassinsky is phenomenal, a disturbing jester.
Of course, just as there is litterature and airport litterature, there is cinema and there is entertainment cinema - a difference the French understand probably better than the Americans; in fact, they think they invented it. Faust is cinema. Like the films of Tarkovsky it is a film that takes its time to unfold, and that time is part of its very nature and appeal. It is a film that talks and talks and the talk is part of its very nature and appeal - plus, it talks in Goethe's language, and at times in his words.
The cinematography, by the French cinematographer Bruno Delbonel, is phenomenal: my overriding impression was of monochromatic ochers, depicting, maybe, the mediocrity of this earthly life, except one scene, when Faust looks for Margarete in the Church, invaded with a blinding white. And the screen size: square, 1.33, evoking the early days of cinematography, as if one was watching a Murnau film shot today.
Now, what the film is "about", I don't know. Sokurov considers it the fourth and final pendant of his tetralogy on power and its corrupting effects. Maybe. I don't know. Sure Faust tries to ascertain his power over knowledge (fails) and over Margarete (succeeds). But really, that's not comparable with Hitler, Lenin or Hiro-Hito. That's what humans do, every day, not monsters thirsting for boundless power. I will not try to rake my brain too much and be content to consider it as a film on human desire, mankind torn between a lust for knowledge and lust for the flesh, and maybe it is the same lust.
I haven't tried to write a very coherent review (and if I did, I am aware that I failed), I'm just trying to convey the notion that it is a film that stirs complex, and powerful emotions.
(PS from 25 February 2015: in a very similar vein, see my review of Alexei German's "Hard to be a God", Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's "Trudno Byt Bogom / Hard to be A God" An Aleksey German Film - NTSC DVD-R with English Subtitles.