PRINT November 2013


Alexander Sokurov’s Faust

Alexander Sokurov, Faust, 2011, 35 mm, color, sound, 134 minutes. Moneylender (Anton Adasinsky) and Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler).

“IT WILL BE A VERY COLORFUL, elegant picture with a lot of Strauss music,” predicted Russian director Alexander Sokurov in 2005, envisaging his long-nurtured version of Goethe’s Faust: “There won’t be any smell of war, but you’ll sense the aroma of chocolate in the room.” Six years later, after Vladimir Putin had personally ensured the film’s funding, the Faust that triumphed at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, proved more metaphysical dirge than frothy operetta. Along the way, the color turned dun and fungal, the elegance to grotesquerie, the Strauss to pastiched Gounod and Wagner, and that warm, chocolaty fragrance to the stench of excrement and putrescent flesh. (A scratch-’n’-sniff exemplar of olfactory cinema, Sokurov’s Faust fairly reeks of rot and scrofula; even a passing comet is reduced to “a fart!” as the lank-haired tavern keeper cries in delight when Faust describes the celestial body as a “ball of gas.”) Frenetically edited, theatrically acted, and garrulously scripted—one can feel felled by the film’s landslide of subtitles—Faust reverts from the hushed, ascetic monodramas of Sokurov’s late period to the fanciful storms of histrionics and anachronism that characterized such early works as Mournful Indifference (1987) and Save and Protect (1989). As such, it makes for a puzzling summation to the Russian director’s “Men of Power” tetralogy.

The previous entries in that eccentric quartet portray three twentieth-century leaders responsible for mass slaughter: Hitler in Moloch (1999), Lenin in Taurus(2001), and Hirohito in The Sun (2005). Sokurov construes each man’s will to power as, respectively, consuming mania, imagined omnipotence, and purblind haplessness—restricted in each case by the frailty of the flesh. Sokurov’s neurotic Hitler endures digestive and other ills; his stroke-distressed Lenin struggles as his body falters and he slides into childlike dependence and dementia; and his obtuse Hirohito, made small and awkward by the director’s diminishing compositions, seems to test the air with carp-like twitches of his imperial lips. Faust announces its motif of physical affliction in the opening sequence, as the camera plunges from the heavens, bypassing an ornate, tasseled mirror—perhaps intended to reflect Goethe’s famous pronouncement that “behavior is a mirror in which everyone shows his image”—toward earth, its heavenly trajectory culminating in the rankly corporeal: a close-up of a cadaver’s gray-green penis, blossoming with a single crimson pustule. From early on, Sokurov’s cinema has often centered on disease and debility—as in Days of Eclipse (1988), in which a postman suffers from the retention of urine—and is populated with put-upon doctors; the viscera-sloshing autopsy that Professor Faust and his mad assistant Wagner perform at the outset of Faust must therefore be counted among the film’s many self-references. (Like that of Save and Protect, Faust’s setting is purposely anachronistic, conflating aspects of both the medieval and the eighteenth-century; it also returns us to the earlier film’s fly-infested world, in which the charnel conjoins the carnal.)

“You’ve told us so much about the composition of the human body,” Wagner whines in the film’s first line, “but not a word about the soul.” The body being mere “rubbish,” the soul must reside in a more rarefied vessel, so Faust’s search for the transcendent heads into other realms, ending in the alpine sublime, as if he were attempting to return to the heavens whence his story commenced. Sokurov seems to retain the central theme of Goethe’s Faust legend—the scholar’s pact with the devil to achieve infinite knowledge (and Gretchen/Margarete in the bargain)—while jettisoning much else (the demonic poodle, the travails of the pregnant Margarete, Walpurgisnacht). Insisting that he never sleeps or eats—though he is shown gobbling from a plate even as his hands are thrust into a corpse’s entrails, and never stops noshing—Faust begins his spiritual mission with a campaign for cash that takes him first to the stinking workplace of his quack father, “an honorable man, lost in the dark,” who is treating a patient by stretching his spine on the rack. The sensual tenderness with which the gray patriarch cradles his adult child, before refusing to share his food and fending off the request for money—“One must work and never beg,” he insists—recalls the unnerving physical affection of the eponymous duo in Sokurov’s Father and Son (2003), just as the stork that greets Faust outside his next destination recollects a similar avian portent in the director’s traumspiel about Chekhov, Stone (1992).

“Where there is money, there you find the Devil,” warns Wagner early in the film, and Faust indeed encounters Satan’s disciple when he first visits the lair of Mauricius Müller, moneylender and pawnbroker, to hock a valuable ring. Though Sokurov bridles at the inference that Mauricius is the devil, insisting that he is not Goethe’s Mephistopheles but a more ambiguous figure of evil, the sallow-fleshed creature who swills hemlock with little ill effect and weighs souls on his scales certainly wields the same dark powers as Goethe’s Mephisto. Actor Anton Adasinsky has made a specialty of performing Mephistopheles with his theater company, Derevo, and so was a natural choice to incarnate the soul-stealing, epicene demon who becomes Faust’s constant companion and guide, much as the unnamed Marquis de Custine steers his charges through the Hermitage in Sokurov’s one-take wonder, Russian Ark (2002; recently rereleased). Mauricius’s misshapen torso sports a wee penis as a tail and a bulbous frontage of crenelated flesh, and the sardonic usurer takes his greatest pleasure in puerile desecration, shitting in a church or lustily kissing the statue of a saint until his jaw aches. “It wasn’t I . . . but a distant ancestor,” Mauricius cracks when Faust accuses him of tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden. (A moonfaced Hanna Schygulla, encased in massive, beribboned gowns and elaborate butterfly headdresses, laboriously trails the irritated devil as his would-be wife.)

When Faust is ushered into the devil’s sanctum, Sokurov resorts to his trademark anamorphic distortions and tilted shots, twisting bodies and morphing space as he has in many past El Greco elongations (especially in Stone). Though unusually shot in the squarish 1.33 aspect ratio of yesteryear—perhaps to invoke F. W. Murnau’s silent-film version of the same tale—by a cinematographer Sokurov had never worked with, Bruno Delbonnel (fresh off Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), Faust follows the established style of the previous films in the tetralogy, featuring sepulchral interiors, a pewter palette, and scrim-like mists unfurled over sepia images. Sokurov’s early use of sfumato in such films as Stone intensifies in the tetralogy, the overcast aura suggesting a Götterdämmerung, a quite literal twilight of the gods. (Faust’s sound track is also characteristically disembodied, thanks to Sokurov’s old-fashioned adherence to postdubbing.)

“I’m not a painting,” Faust’s father inveighs, but the same can’t be said of the film. More than any contemporary director save Godard, Sokurov derives his imagery from the history of art—a Hubert Robert pasticcio here, a Rembrandt tronie there, and everywhere, landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich. The visual determinants in Faust are largely Dutch or Flemish in origin (Rembrandt, Teniers, Brueghel, Ruisdael, Van Dyck), and the film’s most arresting image, the unearthly close-up of Margarete just before she inquires of Faust whether he murdered her brother, has inevitably been compared to Vermeer. Part Dostoevskian angel, part Nabokovian nymphet—witness her moue of seductive disgust when Faust secretly touches her at her brother’s funeral—Margarete hovers eerily in the image, her already-ethereal flesh blanched to alabaster by Delbonnel’s uncanny lighting, like an extraterrestrial conjured by Canova.

More expansive (and expensive) than its three companions, which are set in isolated redoubts—Hitler’s Kehlsteinhaus fortress in Moloch, Lenin’s Morozov estate in Taurus, Hirohito’s imperial palace in The Sun—where the leaders create the mise-en-scènes for their rituals of power, Faust traverses considerable terrain and incident in its reworking of Goethe. Strident where the previous three are ascetic, epic where they are intimate, the film troubles in a way different from its predecessors, which, as brilliant as they are, can seem willfully myopic in their often tender portraits of strongmen responsible for some of the worst horrors of the last century. (The tetralogy’s scriptwriter, Yuri Arabov, appears adept at historical revisionism; he is scripting a Tchaikovsky biopic that denies the composer’s homosexuality.) Faust leaves unanswered the question of who its “man of power” is, its namesake or Mauricius. “Armor becomes you. Very noble, powerful,” the latter sycophantically suggests to Faust. “It befits your name: Heinrich, which means ‘mighty wall,’ or just Heinrich the Mighty.” Mauricius surely mocks, as Faust appears impotent throughout the film, until he finally entombs the devil with stones, tears up their contract, and races (“farther and farther!” he exclaims) toward a new future—as an oligarch, according to Sokurov—at film’s end.

The pristine alpine setting where Faust’s ultimate confrontation was shot (Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano)—“far away and high up,” Mauricius describes it—suggests the pure mountain places in Arnold Fanck’s or Leni Riefenstahl’s bergfilms of the 1920s, which are conventionally interpreted as proto-Nazi fantasies. Before climbing this “stairway to heaven,” Faust stands like a medieval German knight next a tree and recites Luther’s refusal to recant his schismatic beliefs at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God!” In contrast to Faust’s suddenly staunch conscience, associated by Sokurov/Arabov with the launch of Protestantism, Mauricius’s changeable devil has been recast from Goethe’s original to a scuttling, church-defiling moneylender associated with rats, and is identified in the final credits only as Wucherer, an often derogatory term used for centuries to stigmatize Jewishusurers, most notoriously in Veit Harlan’s Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß (1940). As Sokurov’s metaphysical road trip reaches its final destination, Faust gives full vent to Goethe’s irrationalism. Invoking Natur und Geist—not incidentally, the name of a journal dedicated to the ideals of National Socialism—Faust cries: “Nature and spirit . . . that is all one needs . . . to create here, on this free land, a free people!,” summoning the totality that Nazi philosopher Bruno Bauch argued was the central issue for German thought: “That which Goethe called the synthesis of nature and spirit is, at the same time, the center around which the deepest thoughts of all great German thinkers revolve.” Ascending the mountain with Faust, to the ice fields that fill the film’s last image, Mauricius asks, “Who could be haunting this place?” Those specters remain unspoken.

Alexander Sokurov’s Faust opens in New York on November 15 at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.