Review: Faust (2011)

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Cast: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adisinsky, Isolda Dychauk
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Country: Russia
Genre: Drama | Fantasy
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Faust is now open in limited release

“Where does one look for the soul?” begs Heinrich Faust almost immediately in Aleksandr Sokurov’s ethereal adaptation of Goethe’s oft-interpreted play, announcing thematic intent with a frankness that might seem foolish in a film less deliriously dreamlike. Here is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, declaring its desires forthright and passionately pursuing them across the two hours that follow. It’s fitting that Sokurov’s opening shot, a sweeping digital descent from the heavens to the earth, should cut to a close-up of the greyed genitals of the same corpse through which the good doctor Faust cuts in search of that soul: this is a filmmaker as obsessed and overcome as his subject, content to look high and low for any trace of that elusive human essence.

Yet knowledge, as they say, is power, and this eponym’s adventure is as an epistemological answer to those earlier films.

faust_2011_3It’s convenient that the film’s credits declare it “the final part of the tetralogy” that included Moloch, Taurus, and The Sun; those films, each focused on a historical figure’s pursuit of power, seem far removed at first glance from the firmly fictional register of Faust. Yet knowledge, as they say, is power, and this eponym’s adventure is as an epistemological answer to those earlier films. Johannes Zeiler’s Faust is a desperate creation, driven by his thirst for knowledge across all disciplines to discover the purpose of life, his inevitable failure to do so sourly spread across his unsmiling face. “What is he doing here?” is a question asked about the character at one point; the answer is an apt encapsulation of the movie’s image of mankind at large: “He is suffering.”

Clear as its ties to those earlier three movies might become, if there’s a film amidst its director’s oeuvre to which Faust feels particularly akin it’s Russian Ark: this incarnation of Mephistopheles, the demon with whom the doctor makes his devilish pact, bears more than a passing resemblance to that film’s Marquis de Custine. Both characters are as guides to their respective protagonists, gleefully grinning as they lead them through eerie, almost amorphous surroundings with maybe more familiarity than makes sense. Both films reside in a world between reality and fantasy, touring through spaces that, for all the specificity of their setting, seem beholden less to the demands of linear logic than to the wily whims of the man in front.

The putrescent palette here, all greys and greens and browns, suggests the sort of nightmarish night from which we might awaken and take immediately to the shower; it’s a film to be smelled as much as seen, the pileups of pigs and processions mourning the dead that occur in this ably-evoked nineteenth century setting imparting a synesthetic sensibility to Sokurov’s sequences.

faust_2011_4To suggest the similarities are anything more than slight, though, would be to falsely imply that this Faust is a film that operates on any terms but its own. Much as the dreamlike quality, soaring score, and Academy aspect ratio might gesture toward F.W. Murnau’s own appropriation of the story, Sokurov’s is a telling all of his own, filtered through that strange, sublimely cinematic haze particular to his pictures. The putrescent palette here, all greys and greens and browns, suggests the sort of nightmarish night from which we might awaken and take immediately to the shower; it’s a film to be smelled as much as seen, the pileups of pigs and processions mourning the dead that occur in this ably-evoked nineteenth century setting imparting a synesthetic sensibility to Sokurov’s sequences.

That suffocating scene—farmers and funeral attendees pushing past each other in a tight tunnel—is a fine emulation of the film’s uncanny effect, immersing us in a world of death and despair and leaving us room only to writhe in existential abandon. Faust is a formidable experience, if a not always intentionally unpleasant one, given equally to grotesquery and grandeur as it flails about in fear of never arriving at the knowledge it desires. Be it relishing its stage origins with pantomimic zeal or filling its frames with figures from Vermeer, this is a film that’s operatic and painterly and cinematic and lyrical. Like his subject, whose suitability to cap this series shines through, Sokurov is a man who has sought knowledge from more sources than most. His films, this not least among them, show him to be the sort—unlike Faust—glad to know the search never stops.

[notification type=”star”]84/100 ~ GREAT. Faust is a formidable experience, if a not always intentionally unpleasant one, given equally to grotesquery and grandeur as it flails about in fear of never arriving at the knowledge it desires.[/notification]
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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.