Aleksandr Sokurov’s four-part meditation on the interplay between power and evil comes to a close with Faust, a challenging, dense take on Goethe’s famed text. With the previous three parts focusing on the travails of historical figures – Moloch on Hitler, Taurus on Lenin and The Sun on Hirohito – Faust might seem like a peculiar post-script, especially when it unfolds like a spiritual prequel, revealing just a little about what might have driven these men to unthinkable behaviours.
Sokurov’s film – which won the Golden Lion at least year’s Venice Film Festival – keenly plays fast and loose with the source material, changing plot structure, character machinations and location, rendering the project, for better and for worse, very much his own. The core premise of course remains the same; the well-meaning if frustrated Doctor Faust (Johannes Zeiler) visits a cantankerous moneylender (Anton Adasinsky), and after signing in his own blood, is promised everything he could possibly want. That the moneylender is in fact the Devil himself, Mephistopheles, and this pact represents the “Faustian bargain” will be known even to those unfamiliar with the source material.
Faust is a frustrating work through and through, albeit one which at least opens with a promising kick; the initial shot, a breathless pan from the sky down to the pavement of a German village, leaves us expecting phantasmagorical imagery, something Sokurov quickly becomes disinterested in. From here, our feet remain firmly on the ground; the next thing we see is Faust disemboweling a corpse – graphic full-frontal nudity and all – quickly letting viewers know that this is in its fairness one adaptation which pulls no punches.
While it typically eschews the surreal and is planted more or less in “reality” for most of its run time, Sokurov eagerly presents much of his film in an inconceivably distorted format, usually when Mephistopheles is on screen. Not only a rather obvious stylistic technique, it also becomes immensely irritating after 140-minutes, reminding one most curiously of the persistent, pervasive use of Dutch angles in John Travolta’s horrid Scientology vehicle Battlefield Earth.
That is the least of it, though; Faust’s verbose dialogues about life, death, good, evil, faith, and countless other gambits are more exhausting than thought-provoking, entirely unaided by poor subtitling. The expediency and the density of the dialogue will vex non-German speakers, who will have to sprint-read sentences while also trying to work out who to attribute them to. More to the point, it is at the expense of Sokurov’s visual storytelling; breathing in his airy, chilly world is made all the more difficult.
If there is anything to praise, then it might be Sokurov’s own brave decision to make the story his own; his Mephistopheles is not the sly, deceptive rogue we have met before, but rather a repulsive, literally vile creature, as revealed in an effectively discomfiting bathhouse scene, as he strips down to reveal his naked form. However, these moments of bursting invention are too often lost amid a muddled – some might say “pretentious” – treatment, which might baffle even students of Goethe’s text, and likely leave everyone else in the dark.
It is admirable in a sense that Sokurov is clearly creating the art that he wants to create, and makes no apologies for that. It is consistent with his other work, but the lyrical poetry of his better efforts – chiefly his sublime Russian Ark – entirely ape the more obtuse stylings on offer here. Adasinsky is admittedly a diverting presence, delivering a grand physical performance as the weasly Devil while unravelling the material’s darkly comic bent. Zeiler – who uncannily resembles Ralph Fiennes here – seems positively bland by comparison as Faust, but then that might be the point.
Even the most acquainted art house aficionado is likely to struggle through parts of this. It is not without artistic merit, though largely undone by the director’s insistently methodical style. After the commanding opulence of Sokurov’s better work, this languid trawl through Faust feels like quite the comedown.
Faust is on limited release from today.