FAUST (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2011)

Unhappy people are dangerous, Russian writer-director Aleksandr Sokurov has opined, and Heinrich Faust, alchemist and dirt-poor scholar, is miserable. In his filthy quarters, Faust’s anticipation of Frankenstein hovers over the cadaver he is dissecting and ruminates about the soul he is unable to locate. Ostensibly, he is talking to his Igor-like laboratory-servant, but, solitudinous, he is really talking aloud to himself; in a way, the corpse is Faust’s projection and Faust is dissecting himself, unable to locate his own soul. Perhaps the suspicion that the soul doesn’t exist helps explain the Faustian pact he comes to make with the Devil, who wants his soul (et cetera) badly and comes to lord over him, getting him even to commit murder.

Sokurov’s caustic, shimmering Faust, which claims Goethe’s verse play and a novel by Yuri Arabov as sources of inspiration, is his own kind of “adaptation”—one mediated by his earthiness as well as deep dreams. One might say that the legend with which we are familiar only dimly participates. Completing a “tetralogy of power” that had previously taken up Hitler (Molokh, 1999), Lenin and Stalin (Telets, 2001), and Hirohito and MacArthur (Solntse, 2005), this Faust won Sokurov three prizes at Venice, including the Golden Lion of St. Mark and the digital “Cinema of the Future” prize.

Of course, its central relationship is that of Faust and the Mephistopheles-figure—here, the moneylender Müller: a sickeningly wizened old man perhaps generating anti-Semitic fumes but brilliantly enacted by Anton Adasinskiy. Müller’s abundant voice dominates poor, colorless Faust, who even after he crushes Müller under a cascade of seaside boulders is dogged by it. It is clear that, in this telling of the story, Müller is a projection of Faust, a part of him—in effect, Faust’s interiority. This is dreamily reinforced by the fact that Sokurov’s Margarete, whom Faust understandably falls for, seems a much younger, lovelier version of the lightfooted, roly-poly matron associated with Müller—and who, to kindle our fantastic memories, is played by Fassbinder’s Hanna Schygulla.

Sokurov’s subtly much moving camera correlates to the tour of their town with which Müller provides Faust. (Given that this Devil’s “tail” is his rear-situated penis, it is an inverted tour.) The images are soft and tend toward washed-out color, even monochrome, in appearance, as is often the case with Sokurov’s work, which achieves here exceptionally beautiful results with sequences composed of what resemble hand-tinted silent film frames. There is, for instance, a baby blue-bathed passage to die for. Overall, the visual style is correlative to Faust’s indistinct personality.

Shot in Spain and Iceland, Faust is in the German language. It is not at all transcendental; it is also not quite so great as the other entries in Sokurov’s “tetralogy of power.”

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