Aleksandr Sokurov’s ‘Faust’ opened at the Music Box Theater on Friday, December 20th.
The variations on the ‘Faust’ myth are varied and fascinating. The basic outline; a doctor / scholar / philosopher / playboy, frustrated with the oh-so-human trial-and-error, hypothesize-then-prove, system of logic, science and/or metaphysical enlightenment, befriends, or is befriended by, Satan’s right-hand-man, the charming-yet-undisguised Mephistopheles. Whatever knowledge Faust wants to acquire, for his own opportunistic, or altruistic, use, or (in some versions) whatever Godforsaken hedonism he’d like to indulge in, is made readily available to him by Mephisto for the low, low price of his mortal soul; he should call now, operators are standing by. Faust, understandably, mulls this heady offer slowly and contemplatively, until Mephisto throws in some value-added; an irresistibly beautiful young innocent, usually named Margaret or Gretchen. NOW how much would he pay?! In most versions, Faust signs on the dotted line and has his head filled with unimaginable knowledge. But as soon as he’s had his transcendental deflowering session with Gretchen (which is typically before he can put any of that vast knowledge to actual use), he’s dragged forcibly, Sam Raimi-style, into the über-thermal maw of Hell. Whoops!
My favorite film version of this tale, which has been novelized, operafied, and cinematized liberally, is F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece from 1926. In it, Faust is an aspiring alchemist attempting to chemically turn base metals into gold while ALSO seeking a cure for the Black Plague (there’s that altruism angle), who seals the demonic deal after having his way with a kidnapped bride (not Gretchen, whom he meets later) (there’s that hedonism angle). Gretchen becomes his true love, but Faust’s infernally-enabled maneuverings have ruined her life. Just as she’s about to be burned at the stake (!), Faust abjectly throws himself at her, and they’re both incinerated. And, true to Goethe’s version, his love for her, and her personal manifestation of the Eternal Feminine, compels God to revoke Faust’s contract with Satan’s agent, and both Gretchen and Faust enter Heaven. Mephistopheles here is an alternately Godzilla-and-human-sized figure in a giant bat-winged cape. Make sure you trust the source of those drugs you bought before seeing this film – it’s powerful nightmare medicine all by itself.
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust (Russia, 2011) is certainly indebted to Murnau’s generally dark sense of the fantastic, but Sokurov keeps some excesses in check by grounding things in very painterly visual artistic styles. The attitudes are post-Enlightenment, but the visual narrative draws from further afield, from Breugel, Hogarth, Velazquez and Rembrandt, and I suspect you could make good arguments for Bosch and Goya as well. From the short opening scene – a bird’s-eye salute to Murnau’s elaborate miniature landscapes – we are confronted by a disconcerting close-up of one of Dr. Faust’s (German veteran Johannes Zeiler) organ-harvesting dissections that invokes both Thomas Eakins and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. Faust’s work, while scientifically important (as his sycophantic assistant points out), is also a kind of abattoir drudgery, and his labors at his embittered father’s clinic and hospital leave him unfulfilled and penniless. A humiliating but necessary visit to a pawnbroker introduces him to The Moneylender, Mauricius (an impressive Anton Adasinsky), a simultaneously skeletal and gluttony-grotesque figure who is, of course, our pal Mephistopheles. The Moneylender further ingratiates himself to Faust by taking him on a tour of the city Faust could never afford to indulge – a factory pool of beautiful washerwomen not unlike the sirens of Odysseus (and who is that beautiful young woman with the bee-stung pout that Faust is fascinated with? Why, her name is Margarete, of course [Isolda Dychauk]), and a raucous testosterone-fueled tavern full of soldiers and workmen, where Faust is induced to commit an inadvertent murder. (Is it wishful thinking to suppose he’s drawing from Dario Argento, too?)
The interesting thing here about Sokurov’s approach is his emphasis on Faust’s deliverance from the squalor that envelopes his life. He isn’t looking for anything in particular – not riches, not supernatural knowledge, not even, really, love. He just wants to be removed from his current life of drudgery, viscera and poverty, and have other options. But The Moneylender knows exactly which buttons to push to make those modest aspirations feel like transgressive wish-fulfillment, and by the time Faust figures out that he’s been led to damnation, he’s already doomed. And yet, the ending is an oddly uplifting one; Faust celebrates his newfound freedom, unshackled at last from the earthbound, and, like Frankenstein’s monster, retreats to a snowy wilderness to await his final judgement.
The film, while slow-moving, uses that steady pace to build enormous amounts of artful detail, both visually and narratively, and Sokurov laces most of the narrative with dry but effective black humor: in the machinations of The Moneylender (who is followed around frequently by his ‘wife,’ an antic Hanna Schygulla, who seems to bring an almost Lewis Carroll-ian theatricality to her role), and in the blithering urgency of Faust’s medical assistant, Wagner (Georg Friedrich), who continually learns all of the wrong lessons from the right information. A few early scenes will test your tolerance for clinical gore, but the film overall is engaging, and visually impressive (the cinematographer is Bruno Delbonnel, who also shot Inside Llewyn Davis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Across the Universe and Amélie – an agreeably esoteric range of projects). I recommend it.