Dir. Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2011, 140 mins, in German with English subtitles
Cast: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk
Review by Delme Stephenson
Alexander Sokurov’s Faust is the final part of his tetralogy which has focused on the nature of power and its effect upon man. Moloch (1999), Taurus (2001) and The Sun (2005) were bibliographical dramas focusing on infamous twentieth century leaders; Hitler, Lenin and the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Sokurov’s final instalment of his project departs from his past bibliographical attempts with a free-spirited interpretation of Goethe’s literary adaptation of the Faustian legend. Although Sokurov’s Faust is an impressive piece of cinema, it is not his most accessible film and the uninitiated will find it a demanding experience.
The Faust legend is generally known as the story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasure. There have been many treatments of the legend in literature, film and stage. The story was popularised in England by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, however Sokurov has specifically based his film on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s interpretation of Faust, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest written works of German literature.
Although Sokurov’s treatment differs in its temperament, it is not an entirely unexpected piece. Johannes Zeiler’s portrayal of Heinrich Faust resonates as a professor frustrated by the limitations of human knowledge and experience. We also find familiarity with his love and eventual corruption of Margarete (Isolda Dychaulk). Yet it is Sokurov’s depiction of Mephistopheles (Anton Adasinskiy) as the Moneylender which is truly original. He is crude and in comic opposition to the usual depictions of the appealing sensual beguiler. Sokurov further differentiates his interpretation from Goethe’s by capturing Faust and Mephistopheles as objects of humorous vulgarity particularly in conversation.
Visually, the usual fantastical supernatural elements of the story are replaced with unappealing muted colours with Sokurnov predominantly confining the action of the piece to a squalid 19th century town. This setting does help to accentuate the earthly impropriety of many of its scenes.
Commendable as Sokurnov’s intentions are they only help to make the piece impenetrable to a larger audience. Sokurnov distorts the lens in certain sequences which is both visually disturbing and at times perplexing. The dialogue between Faust and Mephistopheles is an assault on the senses and is unrelenting in its pace. However the piece does relent towards the end and the viewer is rewarded with images that linger long in the mind.
The film won the Golden Lion at the 68th Venice Film Festival and was gloweringly praised by jury president Darren Aronofsky who stated that, “There are films which make you dream, make you cry, laugh and think, and those which change your life forever. This is one of those films.” I personally revere Sokurov as a director of incredible vision and yet while I found this film wonderfully challenging, it is also an incredibly exhaustive experience. I recommend this to fans of Sokurov and his tetralogy, as this is a complicated affair.