“Den lieb ich, der Unmögliches begehrt” (Goethe, Faust II, verse 7488)
(“Who longs for the impossible, I love”)
Alexander Sokurov’s Faust (2011), a free adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s eponymous book, tells the story of Heinrich Faust (German TV actor Johannes Zeiler), an impoverished middle-aged scientist and scholar on a quest for absolute knowledge. Led to pawn off some of his belongings, he meets the local usurer, Mauricius Muller (Derevo troupe founder Anton Adasinsky), a mysterious and grotesque figure who seems to possess magical talents. Starving and depressed with the apparently unsolvable problems posed by the mysteries of the human soul, Faust asks his assistant, Wagner (Georg Friedrich), to provide him with a sleeping potion to kill himself. Instead, Mauricius, who pays Faust an impromptu visit, drinks up the potion and survives its lethal effects. From that moment on, the two men become inseparable, Faust constantly challenged by Mauricius and probing the usurer’s mysterious knowledge in turn. During one of their walks through the medieval town where most of the film’s action takes place, Faust accidentally stabs Valentin Emmerich (Florian Brückner), a young soldier leading a dissolute life. Following the accident, he becomes fascinated with the beautiful Marguerite (Isolda Dychauk), Valentin’s younger sister, whom he escorts home following the funeral. Through Mauricius’s intercession, Faust manages to provide Marguerite’s mother (Antje Lewald) with money, but when he confesses to having killed Valentin, it seems as though the young woman is lost on him forever. Mauricius seizes this opportunity to offer a night with Marguerite to Faust, in exchange for his soul—a contract the scholar must sign with his own blood. Following the fateful night, in the course of which Marguerite’s mother is killed with a sleeping potion, Faust and Mauricius flee to an unknown and strange land, where they meet the ghost of Valentin, and marvel at a geyser. Ready to move on, Faust quickly grows irritated with this spectacular but repetitive geophysical phenomenon. When he finds out that Marguerite will most likely be accused of her mother’s murder, he tears his contract to pieces, throws Mauricius down a ditch and casts heavy stones at him. Although Mauricius survives the ordeal, Faust is now left to fend for himself alone in a sublime and barren land of snowy mountains and glaciers, led by his unquenched thirst for knowledge and the voice of Marguerite, which may (or may not) be the calling of love.
Ever since the coming to power of Vladimir Putin in Russia, the cinema of Alexander Sokurov, once such a private chamber auteur, has grown bigger and bigger, both in scope and ambition. This was much in evidence in his ideologically questionable but technically admirable tour de force Russian Ark (2002), as well as in the ‘tetralogy of power’, begun in Moloch (about Hitler, 1999), Taurus (about Lenin, 2000), The Sun (about Hirohito, 2005), and brought to a close by Faust (which was awarded the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival).
In fact, it is not as though Sokurov went through some dramatic transformation with the coming to power of Russia’s new Czar: his cinema was always rife with grand, important topics and motifs (Death, the question of existence, the human soul and its destiny). But under the financial and ideological constrictions of the dying Soviet Union or the early, troubled post-Soviet years, the Russian auteur could not give them their fullest, most spectacular expression, opting instead for a sublime, if sedate cinema of decay, of slow and contemplative temporalities. With Faust, however, his most expensive (and expansive, in many ways) project, Sokurov not only crowns the tetralogy and its exploration of the nature of power and the price of the human soul, but also his career as a whole.
At first look, Faust does not really resemble Sokurov’s earlier cinema. To be sure, the perpetuum mobile nature of the steadycam evokes Russian Ark, and the Russian director’s trademark distorting anamorphic filters are much in use here. But his earlier films were generally characterized by slower, more static compositions. Nevertheless, Faust can be readily viewed as an magnum opus, a sum of all that has preceded, from the fairy tale environment of Mother and Son (1997) and late medieval imagery found in Hidden Pages (1993) to the apocalyptic considerations of Mournful Insensitivity (1987); from the obsession with death and funerary rituals (e.g. The Second Circle; 1990) to the pessimistic celebration of life and beauty (the ‘star child’ from Days of Eclipse; 1988); from the idiosyncratic literary adaptation and appropriation (Platonov, Shaw, Flaubert, the Strugatsky Brothers, and now Goethe) to the minimalistic original script (Stone, 1994), and for its profound investment with the grotesque and animal imagery.
As everywhere else in Sokurov, the film is strongly preoccupied with death, and presents a strong dialectic of body and spirit: following an opening aerial shot of the city, the film reveals a close-up of a corpse’s tumid penis. Faust and Wagner are trying to locate the human soul in the dead body, which instantly evokes early surgical works painted by Rembrandt as well as Mantegna’s dead Christ. As the body is lifted vertically on its slab, its innards gushing out through the open abdomen, the physicality of the cadaver, its sheer lack of spirituality and its banal, heavy presence are reminded to us in all their materiality. And whereas in Goethe’s book Faust was saved from committing suicide by an Easter procession, here the merry celebration is replaced not by one, but two funerals. In each case, the hearse and score of mourners in black are accompanied by the mysterious figure of Agathe (Hannah Schygulla), a sibylline cameo and an alleged Death figure who also claims to be the wife of Mauricius.
In line with this presence and physicality of death, Sokurov summons synesthesia throughout the film: smell (the cadaver, Mauricius’s foul farting), touch (squabbles and tussles between characters trying to move through exiguous spaces, the earth thrown on Valentin’s coffin) and even taste (the hungry characters ravenously feeding on berries or cookies) are all made compellingly felt through the treatment of sound and image, both texturally modulated and enhanced by digital technologies. But while the characters starve, the viewers, faced with this baroque sensory onslaught, might often find themselves on the verge of indigestion.
It is a mixture of old school cinematography and new digital image doctoring that achieves the film’s most conspicuous aspect, namely its painterly quality, reflecting the director’s life-long investment with the great masters of Western painting. Here, through Sokurov’s (but also cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s) efforts, it is the golden age of the Dutch and Flemish schools that are resurrected, albeit in a somewhat morbid fashion: to Rembrandt’s chiaroscuros and Vermeer’s diffuse lights, Sokurov adds the interiors of David Teniers and Martin Drosling. In Marguerite’s pale complexion and delicate features, we unmistakably recognize the art of Anton Van Dyck. The grotesque or mythological allusions evoke Rubens, and the universe of the film teems with characters, evocative of Breughel’s scenes of small city life, and Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscapes. In the uncanny figure of Mauricius and his interlope trickster spirit, it is Hieronymus Bosch and his many followers that are referred to most recognizably. The film thus blends a rather realistic universe with a most detached, dream-like realm of witchcraft and the fantastical. Likewise, it composes a strange and endlessly beautiful temporal tapestry of the 16th, 17th and early 19th centuries, and combines the décor of a Medieval central European town that seems to spring forth out of a rocky mountainside (the film was shot partly in the Czech Republic) with the lunar landscapes of Iceland.
There is nothing surprising in this composite, hybrid quality. Sokurov has always been the director of heterogeneous materials par excellence. Moreover, he is a great master of paradox, keen on bridging unlikely elements together: he already recreated a fantastical, dream-like city with shots of Lisbon and St Petersburg in his much-maligned and misunderstood paean to homosexuality, Father and Son (2003); and styles and temporality collided freely in his early efforts, such as Lonely Voice of Man (1987) or Mournful Insensitivity, which mixed found documentary footage from the WWI with a recreation of GB Shaw’s Heartbreak House menagerie.
In its opening scene, Faust realizes a 30 year-old ambition of Sokurov: to create an aerial shot that would originate from the skies above and gradually dolly downward, in one continuous weightless movement, onto the land where the action takes place. A similar attempt had already been conducted in the opening shot of Days of Eclipse, to memorable effect. Here, the use of CGI allows for an even more vertiginous plunge, even if these landscapes look as though they belonged in Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings or some video game introduction, rather than a Sokurov film. The element to keep in mind, here, is not the artificial look of this bird’s-eye view, so much as what Sokurov adds to his painterly compositions throughout the film, namely movement. Never has his cinema been more visually dynamic, in perpetual motion, not even in Russian Ark. The steadicam constantly moves around the characters, back and forth, gliding along the narrow streets of the mythical town, a floating, slightly uncanny sensation reinforced not only by this specific technology, but also by the film’s relatively quick editing. The subsequent effect is one of a carefully crafted choreographic wonder, a macabre dance of light and shadow, where the latter always threatens to conquer the former.
Movement does not only inhabit the camera; it is at work in the characters as well. Each scene, when it is not teeming with dozens of extras, captures Faust in his existential restlessness: jumping, climbing, running, not pausing even for a meal, which he devours rapidly, moving from the kitchen to the hallway. And his large nose—Johannes Zeiler’s most striking feature—only reinforces this impression of a constantly searching soul, in a most physical sense, sniffing around like a dog digging amidst dead leaves in search of the valuable black truffle. Likewise, Mauricius, in his grotesque, sensuous gait, perpetually crawls and bends, evoking the amphibian or the reptile, his dark glassy eyes constantly on the lookout for a mean trick to play. A sardonic-looking Anton Adasinsky brings the indispensable physicality and stamina of the mime and stage actor to this part, much like Sergey Dreyden had as the Marquis de Custine in Russian Ark.
Compared to these Sokurovian creepers, Marguerite seems an ethereal, almost ghostly entity, her thin frame and pale complexion only adding to this impression. Faust is fascinated, arrested, even, no doubt, by the purity, the unreachability of this angelic being. She alone seems to slow down the scientist’s agitation, if only temporarily. Yet, as so often in Sokurov, no such thing as heterosexual love can happen. By spending a night with Marguerite, Faust dooms her, still unsatisfied, as he has not really managed to penetrate the mystery of the female body. Be it as it may, the greatest, most cinematic moments of the film unquestionably remain the physical interactions between Faust and Marguerite: first, at Valentin’s funeral, Faust discretely touches the young woman’s hand, and she looks at him, lips pursed, in a mixture of contempt and furious passion; later on, he pretends to be Marguerite’s priest, hidden from her gaze by the safe recess of the confessional’s grille; later still, the two confront each other, face to face, in Faust’s study. There, Sokurov’s trademark anamorphic lenses transfigures both actors, Faust’s nose suddenly reduced to more human proportions; and Marguerite’s face, flattened, widened, resembling nothing so much as a baby. But this round face also echoes the moon that in the film’s closing will speak to Faust with Marguerite’s voice, or Faust’s homunculus stolen by Wagner—a grotesque rendition of Marguerite’s dead child in the Goethe text. Finally, after he has sold his soul to the devil to be with her, Faust finds Marguerite, peering into a lake, as though contemplating suicide, and the two plunge and disappear into the deep blue water, in a sublime image of unresolved sexual tension and blissful disintegration.
Cinema has always thrived on the notion of conflict and ambiguity, and Sokurov knows this well. Yet in his distaste for traditional sensationalist, causal, and ‘banal’ screenwriting, he (and Yuri Arabov, about whom there is more below) has always substituted traditional conflict as an engine of narration with more puzzling contradictions and paradoxes, and deeper, more titillating ambiguities, rarely ever disambiguated. In Faust, this is expressed in the extremely strange structure that seems to conflate the arch of Goethe’s classic story with the Sokurovian refusal of traditional structure, where the ‘plot’, or rather the fabric of the narrative, is constituted of loosely connected episodes and ‘fragments of fate’. The perambulatory nature of the characters’ quest lends itself beautifully to this quasi-picaresque string of unrelated events. In the course of Faust’s well known wager with the devil and quest of satisfaction, we encounter surrealist intrusions: a woman laying and promptly devouring an egg; a monkey on the moon; a homunculus in a jar straight-out of a Cronenberg or Stuart Gordon film (or, let’s be fair, straight out of Yuri Arabov’s love of the horror genre and the bodily grotesque); a naked Mauricius, revealing his mangled, misshapen body and penis growing out of his lower back; and a Russian man donning an Oriental caftan in a coach, a Gogolian character encountered in the middle of a Germanic forest on his way to Paris.
If the film’s originality lies in these outbursts and interruptions, it does not help the progression of the story, nor the already weak tempo and rhythm of it all. As a result, and for all its agitation, relative fast cutting, gliding camera movements, multiple characters and diverse scenes, Faust feels abounding and ponderous. It is one of Sokurov’s most poorly paced and consequently difficult films to watch, second only in this respect to his little-seen and equally protracted Save and Protect (1989). But its very many extraordinary features redeem the film and make it a most valuable cinematic experience, enriched, as is always the case with Sokurov—and a mark of his art’s grandeur—with each viewing.
One of the keys to the richness of Sokurov’s cinema is his constant challenging and re-inventing of rules of cinematic space and point of view. In the tetralogy, in particular (and if one leaves aside the thematic of the human soul, this is truly the unifying dimension of the four films) Sokurov has come up with an original poetics of gaze and space, whereby scores of secondary characters constantly look on or peep at the spectacle that the protagonists constitute. In these scopic impulses, these ‘secondary’ vectors of vision anchor an unexpected perspective and jumbled cinematic space. The result vaguely resembles Robert Bresson’s regimes of what Gilles Deleuze refers to as ‘any-space-whatever’ in his Cinema books, and certainly shares in its glorious predecessor’s moral stakes. In Faust, the character’s hubris is definitely the force that polarizes and makes the cinematic perspective go astray. The harmonious construction of the universe is shattered in a world where characters reject the Divine or transcendent hypothesis, priests are easily corrupted, the devil rubs himself lasciviously against statues of Christ or the Virgin Mary, fathers deny food to their children, and the latter hate their mothers. This moral maze only rarely finds a central point of attention, which, arguably, could be the purity embodied by Marguerite. But even she, as mentioned above, hardly centralizes the attention for too long.
Next to the properly theological implications of this Sokurovian jumbled spatial and visual grammar, we find notions that had already featured prominently in the earlier installments of the tetralogy, namely the questioning of privacy for historical figures, at the turn of the disciplinary and surveillance society (and its implications vis-à-vis the cinematic and video camera apparatus). But in their tearing apart of the traditional cinematic ‘suture,’ these films also offer a new view onto the world and the human body, exploded and recomposed, as it were, in what Sokurov likes to call ‘the other life’.
Although most of Sokurov’s old time associates (cinematographer Alexander Burov, editor Leda Semenova, sound technician and handyman Vladimir Persov) are out of the picture, this film consecrates Sokurov’s and career-long partnership with screenwriter Yuri Arabov, but also his relatively recent association with producer and composer Andrey Sigle. The role played by Sigle cannot be underestimated in the recent turn, aesthetic and political, taken by Sokurov’s cinema. Facilitating access to larger budgets, Sigle also imprints his own artistic presence by replacing Sokurov’s trademark use of pre-existing classical tunes (Nussio, Wagner, Mahler, Mozart, Chopin) with his own brand of 19th century inspired orchestral music. The neo-romantic pastiche of Tchaikovsky and Smetana, which had bathed the sonic landscapes of Father and Son (whose central musical leitmotif is reprised in Faust, for that matter) and Alexandra (2007), is expanded here with stylistic hints to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, but also a hodgepodge of Strauss, Liszt, Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms for the sake of emphasizing the Germanic quality of it all, alternating the flamboyantly bombastic and the darkly evocative. In many ways, this is Sokurov embracing a spectacular, ‘Hollywood-style’ scoring, consecrating the taste for kitsch that was always present in his cinema, but in a muted, subdued manner, until the 2000s, where it came into full light, reflecting the turn in Russian culture evoked at the beginning of this review. Not that kitsch must always be the nightmare dreaded by Clement Greenberg. As a matter of fact, as is, Sokurovian kitsch is quite glorious, especially as it coexists with a genuine modernist ethos—the complexity and richness of it all, the creativity and care put in each shot. Surely this combination of high kitsch and high art can seem contradictory, but this is where Sokurov’s other key partner, Yuri Arabov, and the two men’s mutual obsession with the paradoxical and dualism, come into (inter)play.
The central motif of Faust—the conundrum, for a scientific empiricist, of being confronted with absolute notions—held strong appeal to the authors in part because of its many dialectical offerings. Likewise, motifs of doubling are ubiquitous in Sokurov’s oeuvre overall, and certainly here: the film opens on a shot of a celestial mirror, the very notion of the looking glass implying the idea of doubling, something immediately reinforced by two moons looming over the CGI landscape. Throughout the film, doublings and doppelgängers abound: Wagner is a degraded version of Faust, whose place he tries to usurp after his unrequited love is all but lost as his master is enthralled by the young Marguerite. Faust and Marguerite seem to share an identical distaste for their ageing, smelly, overly made-up mothers. Mauricius, who can of course be seen as Faust’s evil twin, also has an assistant, Ferdinand. When first introduced, the two men’s voices overlap, and for a moment Ferdinand seems to introduce himself as his master, their identities blurry, uncertain. Doublings can lead to patterns of misrecognition, as when Marguerite fails to identify her dead brother. It is not by chance, then, that this central motif of doubling and its dark, confusing implications, so dear to Sokurov and Arabov, should be explored in a film representing one of the most idiosyncratic devil figures in film history.
The devil, as we know, is, etymologically—as opposed to religion, which ‘religates’, connects, unifies—that being which divides, makes dual, double. Neither evil nor good, Sokurov’s devil is the engineer of division, and a veiled metaphor for capitalism: he is a moneylender, an usurer by profession, and a pragmatic materialist at heart: to Faust’s quote of the gospels that ‘In the beginning was the word,’ he quips ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ In a world purportedly torn by war (many forlorn soldiers stroll around town) and where everyone seems to starve in spite of retaining servants and lofty interiors, Faust prolongs Sokurov’s preoccupation with the importance of returning to more rigorous moral standards in order to redeem a world—our world—slowly dying while bathing in apparent material comfort.
The problem, under the neoromantic pomp of Sigle’s score and the anesthetic beauty of the digitally touched-up imagery, is the preoccupying ideology lurking behind this bright kitsch banner—what I would call the messianic grand Russian discourse in Sokurov, heavily endorsed by Vladimir Putin. As the producers freely confess, the film speaks to the Russian Federation’s desire to see a rapprochement between Western and Russian cultures, and how the latter can inform, and perhaps, further, redeem the former—hence the metaphor of the ark in Sokurov. The tasteless bit, naturally, has to do with the not-so-distant echoes of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreements, the deadly attraction between Germanic and Russian cultures, more mildly expressed in the dangerously nepotistic alliance (and dalliance) between Putin and former German prime minister Gerhardt Schröder. It is in this oblique catering to Putin’s realpolitik that Faust, but also its predecessor, Alexandra, rub the wrong way.
Instead of satisfying themselves with being major aesthetic accomplishments, with profound philosophical contemplations, to boot, the films definitely smuggle a didactic message, the murkiness of which does little to conceal its dogmatism. Faust’s refusal to honor his contract with the devil at the end of the film could perhaps be read as Sokurov’s ultimate elopement far away from the dark, devilish implications of pacts with absolute (and absolutely corrupting) power. Yet one can’t help thinking that neither Faust, nor Sokurov, can really escape their engagements, and are still entangled with a dangerously powerful and ruthless authority, however above considerations of good and evil. For someone like Sokurov, who (perhaps less than his own legend has it, but still) suffered from a variety of ruthless expressions of dogmatism, from late Soviet bureaucracy to homophobia to neo-fascist aggression (the filmmaker was heavily beaten by hoodlums in the early 2000s, nearly losing eyesight in the process), this may seem a strong paradox. But then again, this is what his cinema, one of the most unique and original in our currently depopulated cultural sphere, has always been about—about excessive, impossible challenges, somehow always overcome, for better or for worse. Faust occupies a distinguished place somewhere in between those polar opposites, being both awful and awfully good. Set in this paradoxical movement, perpetually rocking back and forth between positive wonder and a feeling of nausea, dizzyingly virtuosic, over-the-top and tripping, Faust is Sokurov’s Mephisto Waltz, his péché mignon that is also péché sublime, and we have all joined the dance already, whether we like it or not.
The author wishes to thank David Glenn for providing first-hand information about the film; and Michael Cramer for his help in editing the present piece.