Faust (Russia 2011)

Johannes Zeiler as Faust

Aleksandr Sokurov’s version of the Faust story was released in the UK today but I saw it in the Bradford International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. I have to confess that had it not been in the festival programme at the appropriate time, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to see it as I have a blank spot when it comes to ‘classical literature’ of any kind. I need to be interested in the sociology, the history or the politics of a narrative to really appreciate it. I think I once saw the Richard Burton version of Dr Faustus (UK 1967), but if so I’ve forgotten it completely. I wish I had seen Murnau’s expressionist version (1926) because the glimpses I’ve had of it suggest at least a masterpiece of design.

So, I approached the Sokurov version, with only the knowledge that the film won the major prize at Venice last year. I’m not sure that I can say that I enjoyed the narrative, but I can say that it was a fine spectacle on the big screen and I was never bored. Sokurov and his scriptwriter claim to have kept close to Goethe’s version of the story. The script is in German but most of the actors appear to be Russian except for the Austrian Johannes Zeiler as Faust and Hannah Schygulla, Fassbinder’s leading lady, as the moneylender’s wife. The film was shot on location in Iceland (the caves and mountain tops) and various locations in the Czech Republic with interiors in the Barrandov studios in Prague.

What struck me most was the look of the film. Sokurov chose to present it in Academy ratio (1.33:1) which for me made the link to Murnau very strong. He also employed a colour scheme that both muted the colours and gave them a yellow-green cast. Finally there seemed to be a distorting lens that featured in several shots (and which at various points I wondered whether this was the fault of the digital projection, but I think that it is meant to signify Faust’s state of mind as he is led through events by the Mephistopheles character – here, Muller, the moneylender). Photography is by Bruno Delbonnel, perhaps best known for his work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Amélie and A Very Long Engagement.

I have little idea about what the overall aim of the narrative might be – and it’s comforting in a way that Tony Rayns seems equally baffled in Sight & Sound (June 2012). I agree with Rayns that there is little sense of a moral struggle here. Faust is a scientist, more bothered by his lack of money than by a burning desire to solve a problem or discover something new. He treats his friends, family and assistant rather badly and allows himself to easily led by the grotesque moneylender. I don’t understand why/how Sokurov intends this to be the fourth part of a tetralogy about evil men and power (following his films on Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito). I saw the Hitler film, Moloch (Russia 1999) some time ago and again, all I remember is its formal ‘otherness’ and its depiction of the banalaties of Hitler’s recreation at Berchtesgaden.

I suppose what kept me going through nearly 140 minutes of Faust was a kind of spotting-game. Which other films, filmmaking styles etc. does Faust remind me of? This I found interesting. First the setting. Goethe (whose late 18th century/early 19th century re-working of the original from the 1570s seems to be Sokurov’s starting point) lived and worked all over Germany but is generally associated with Weimar. However, I felt that the film was strongly ‘Central European’ and at one point I thought about Svankmajer (who made his own part-animated film about Faust). I didn’t know at that point where the film had been made or that Faust was played by the Austrian Johannes Zeiler, but this clearly makes sense. On the other hand, Zeiler kept reminding me of Bruno S. as the title character in Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). There probably isn’t much likeness but of course the time period and location are not dissimilar. Faust has a strange approach to costume and set dressing. Reviewers have suggested periods from the 16th to the 18th centuries and some have conjured up ‘medieval’. I think that there is a sense of, if not medieval, certainly a kind of rural backwardness – conceivable in land-locked Central Europe where new technologies like railways haven’t penetrated. On the other hand, some costumes certainly suggest early Victorian times in the 1830s-40s.

Let me throw in some other references. Certain scenes like the village bath-house, in which Muller’s grotesque and physiologically challenged body is exposed, reminded me of Bosch (and Rayns suggests also Brueghel). On the other hand I was also reminded of popular horror films associated with Poe (right period but wrong location) and the later gothic of Transylvania and Dracula. The closing sequence I’m afraid did remind me of both Monty Python and earlier British absurdist dramas in which our hero roams a post apocalyptic wasteland.

Not a lot of intellectual stimulus in the adaptation of the story then, but plenty of fun in watching and listening to the images. I hope this doesn’t sound too much like Transformers! Rayns launches more of an attack on Sokurov and I was disturbed to read that he is chummy with Putin.

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