A beautifully stylized telling of the Faust legend, but lacking in content and originality.
Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2011 film Faust, screening now at New York City’s Film Forum, is essentially a story of striving and corruption. Drawing from Goethe’s famous play (which is based on an even older legend), the film begins with our 19th century Dr. Faust (Johannes Zeiler) dissecting a cadaver in search of the soul, but alas to no avail. By now, it’s a cultural myth we all know– Faust is a man driven to despair as he faces old age and money problems, questioning the true nature of God, good and evil.
Deep in his depression, Dr. Faust meets local moneylender Mauricius (Anton Adassinsky), who offers the aging Faust an opportunity to spend the night with beautiful Margarete (Isolda Dychauk,) in exchange for his soul. Without giving away the details, Sokurov largely stays true to Goethe’s original tale (with only one significant alteration at the film’s conclusion). We see the basic three-part formula of Faust, his ill-fated lover and the devil, as we watch a man of unchecked hubris succumb to the temptations of power.
The film is visually stunning, utilizing a faded color palette and blurred tones that only intensify Faust’s compulsive pathos. The film’s is staunchly absurdist– the bizarre characters, their obsessive passions, the various grotesque scenes that weave together in a sort of visceral menagerie of the strange (such as Mauricius’s deformed body with his genitals on his backside). There is a seeming distance between the actions on screen and the dialogue/narration we hear overhead, reminiscent of the older practice of recording images without sound and dubbing the dialogue and soundtrack later on– it brings yet another level to the already mystical unreality of the whole experience.
To be sure, Sokurov’s project is ambitious– the fourth and final film in his series concerning powerful, corrupted men of the 20th century (Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito), Faust certainly continues this exploration of the darker side of human nature. The movie sports a large budget of 8 million euro, and shoots on site in the Czech Republic, Germany and Iceland with a whole cast of extras; it’s hard not to be impressed with the grandness of the director’s vision.
Yet the film suffers from serious aesthetic hang-ups– the lingering shots of faces, hands and objects is far more indulgent than necessary, and often slows the film’s pace to a tedious crawl. This is not helped by the fact that Sokurov allows the film to be driven more by its evocative atmosphere than by its plot, characters, or imagery; the vaporous visual effects quickly become claustrophobic as you want the story to move along quicker. Despite Sokurov’s many painterly shots, the impressive production value and beautiful soundtrack, the film’s stylistic decadence comes dangerously close to outweigh it’s meaningful content.
Indeed, it’s hard to say what Sokurov’s rendition of an old story brings to the table besides an aesthetic sensibility. There have been many retellings of the Faust legend in film, with F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent version coming to mind immediately. It makes for a good comparison– while Murnau’s movie certainly had a very strong aesthetic, his use of style and technique function in a holistic manner within the narrative. His technical and stylistic tricks are used to contribute to the telling of the story, rather than exist for their own sakes or contribute to some abstract sense of “atmosphere.”
Artistic esotericism is a dangerous thing to play with, and Sokurov’s Faust suffers heavily for it– especially considering the conservative (and somewhat dull) reading the director makes of the original legend. Stylistic pretension doesn’t equate a good movie, and unfortunately there’s not enough entertainment value here to keep one more than mildly interested.