Sokurov Waltz: Faust (2011)
by Jeremi Szaniawski
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.
To Read the Rest of the Essay