Review: Aleksandr Sokurov's "Faust"

Aleksandr Sokurov finishes his tetralogy of power with a magnificent, grotesque adaptation of Goethe’s Faust.
Daniel Kasman

Aleksandr Sokurov's tetralogy of power, previously dedicated to real biographical subjects (Lenin, Hitler, Hirohito), unexpectedly concludes with a legendary fictitious man: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust. The Russian director has loosely—one might even say wildly, fervently—adapted Goethe's play with a barely contained gleeful passion.

The mise en scène breaks out of the fetid, murmuring stasis so evocative of Molokh (1999), Taurus (2001) and The Sun (2005) and is freed to wander in a malleable, Ruizian manner around a sumptuously dirty and worn old German town of stone and earth. After beginning with a Forrest Gump-like descent of the camera from mirrored heavens, flying down to the grimy, sprawling town, the second shot after this luxurious, fantastical opening introduces Faust (Johannes Zeiler) via the decomposing ash-purple penis of a corpse he is dissecting in poverty and philosophical inquiry. With no money for food (let alone gravediggers), the doctor first approaches and then is chased, accompanied and pursued by (and later pursues himself) the town’s money-lender (Anton Adasinsky)—the film's devil.

Faust then truly stretches its legs, with its whole course feeling like a frenzied walk in a crooked loop around the world, peering into crannies, stepping into taverns, washrooms and apartments, circling the town forest. Bodies are all in motion, above all the manic, lurching and malformed money-lender and the relentlessly pacing Faust. All is frustrated, eager circulation, all tied to the constant questions the man asks himself, asks no one, and asks in the fluid dialogues with those around him which weave between the quotidian and the philosophical.

These endless inquiries, this nervous motion, is paced if not powered by a wonderfully grotesque humor of the earthly, lower-body type: sex jokes, farting and pratfalls. Faust is relentlessly physical, characters stumbling, slugging, touching, cloying—the world is cramped and moist and so tactile the people seem like mobile plants grown from this overripe mess.  Faust himself is born in questioning motion, but his ambitions lower the more he talks to himself (and is talked to by and with the devil). He begins asking about the soul but quickly lowers his sights to mere food, money and lust, asking, even craving a curse for, eventually, so little in such a lonely world.  (Then again, a time-stopping sequence of subjective close-ups of Faust’s longed-for Marguerite, bathed in holy golden light, eyes downcast, face fair, pale and young, may, in comparison to all the sun-sucking filth of the world around this dream, be worth flirting close to damnation for.)

Sokurov's previous three films in this series have all had a tight, claustrophobic grandeur to them, a dense, damp, leaden weight-like expansiveness to their minute focus. Faust, as the grand finale, opens the group up, beginning and ending in a world outside man's spaces, and the movement between befits the fictional legacy of the source material, giving this one man so many questions, so much energy, so many chances.  Yet in the end he is as trapped as the rest who were tempted, enthralled or otherwise imbued with ungodly power on this earth; in a way, Faust ends as Molokh, Taurus and The Sun begin, past the brief heights of glory and opening to an abyss of suffering.  (I am reminded, incidentally, of the way Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress seems to chart the prequel narrative to the rest of his works with Dietrich.)  That Faust is able to take place before these works about real men allows us finally to see the origins, the temptation, the decision and the precipice of the descent—and since we are yet before hell, the path to get there is, remarkably, a vibrantly soulful, terrible and funny feast.

This review originally appeared in a modified form in our coverage for the 2011 Venice International Film Festival. 

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