Issue 34 (2011)

Aleksandr Sokurov: Faust (2011)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2011


Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Böse will, und stets das Gute schafft (Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust)

Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Gute schafft (Wucherer Müller in Sokurov’s Faust)

faustIn Sokurov’s Faust, which had its world premiere at the 68th Venice International Film Festival on 8 September 2011, there is no evil in this world: Goethe’s Mephistopheles has become a simple pawnbroker, Mister Müller (Mauritius Müller, with no reference implied to the fest’s art director Marco Müller!), who is not a part of an evil force “die stets das Böse will”. Indeed, in Sokurov’s world there seems to be no evil (and by implication no good), but only an absence of meaning, as Mephistopheles points out to Faust. Yet in actions not derived from the play Sokurov suggests that not only do good and evil exist after all, but there is an intrinsic link between the two: the death of Grete’s brother at Faust’s hand during the visit at the Auerbachkeller comes as relief to the family, liberating his mother and sister from an apparently arrogant young lad. Faust’s interest in pathology and anatomy, in astrology and the construction of the world has no obsessive manifestations: he goes about his work and his hobbies in a leisurely manner. If Faust is not driven by an obsession for knowledge, he cannot be tempted by the devil, but where then does Faust’s conflict lie between good and evil, between heaven and hell. In the temptation of the flesh?

Sokurov’s Faust is supposed to be the final part of the tetralogy, Moloch (Molokh, 1999), Taurus (Telets, 2001) and The Sun (Solntse, 2005), which showed men (political leaders Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito) obsessed with ideas that were incompatible with the pettiness of everyday life: Hitler’s troubled digestive system apparently contradicted his grand ideas about race; Lenin’s immobility after his stroke humiliated his idea of the active Revolutionary man; and Hirohito’s distance from life in general ridiculed the pseudo-God-like emperor, turning him into an actor who cannot quite leave his life-long role as Sun. Faust, according to Sokurov, shares with these leaders “a love of words that are easy to believe and pathological unhappiness in everyday life” (Venice press-book).

faustIndeed, words seem to dominate this film: the dialogue, entirely in German, follows the Faustian text not literally, but in a fragmenting, fragmented and fragmentary manner: the text seems out of joint and phrases seem abridged; words flow but have little meaning. The actors even speak with local dialects: Johannes Zeiler’s Faust has an Austrian dialect which Anton Adasinskii’s Mephisto does not share with him: he speaks a neutral German, maybe with a hint of a Prussian accent. A concern with language can also be seen in Faust’s response to Mephisto’s contract: he corrects the style and the spelling before running out of ink and signing – with his own blood.

If the political leaders of the tetralogy’s first three films share with Faust an obsession with words, then it is about words as in language or sound, but not words that express an idea. Faust may be driven by thirst for knowledge, but not in terms of searching for an idea, but in an everlasting thirst for knowledge, an unlimited knowledge of the world rather than concise answers to concise questions. Only in that sense, his quest is for an elevation to a God-like status, and only until he sees Grete, when his interest shifts from that of a pathologist curious about dead flesh to an interest in fresh and living flesh – of a simple man. In this context it is significant that Mauritius Müller is played by Anton Adasinskii, the founder of the mime and movement theatre Derevo that peaked in its popularity in the mid 1990s.[1] Yet strangely, his agile and disciplined body as seen in his stage performances is mangled and distorted by special padded bodysuits, his face emaciated. His a-sexual body arouses only disgust, both in the way it is captured by the camera and in the women’s bathhouse that he and Faust visit to watch Gretchen. Indeed, Mephisto’s physiognomy of a devil, slightly hunchbacked, complete with a little tail and farting in public, betrays no allegiance to an evil force: he is and remains, despite his body, simply an a-social creature. He is a real-life character and no part of an evil force, in the same way as there is no good force: the church is entirely insignificant other than as a place where Faust listening to Grete’s confession, again referencing an interest in words, words, words....

faustFaust is no man who follows ideas; ideas and words are less relevant for him than food and flesh. Such a Faust seems no match for the dictators who are governed by words and ideas: he is unhappy for material reasons, but they do not impair any grand searches he may have. The pawnbroker suggests quite correctly that there is no meaning in life, nothing of value—nothing to pawn. It is this void which leads to the final frames of film, when Mephisto has taken Faust to a world of volcanoes and geysers. And it is in the face of the force of nature that Faust finds pleasure, and understands the grand project of the world apparently better than through his writing or his research. In this sense, Sokurov’s film sends a simple, pantheistic message that replaces the good/evil binary of Goethe’s opus magnus

faustSokurov deploys painterly references to renaissance painting, especially Brueghel, in the construction of frames—something that has become a characteristic feature of his film style. When Faust and Mephisto roam the forests and hills, he uses his well-known technique of foreshortening, creating a distorted image of the character in the frame. Sokurov repeats himself: disconnecting man from his environment, referring to the artificiality of life as opposed to the truth of nature—these concepts have been analysed in writings on his films. Faust may offer nothing new cinematically, but neither does it offer a conclusion to the tetralogy. What is it that Sokurov sought to show through Faust that he had not yet articulated in the three previous films?

There is an episode in the film that brings in the only reference to Russia: Mephisto and Faust jump onto a passing carriage to catch a ride. In it, they find a Russian gentleman who wakes up, asking his servant Selifan to pass him his kaftan: we are in Gogol’s Dead Souls. Man betrays himself in his search of wealth (Chichikov) and his search for meaning (Faust and Mephistopheles). And Sokurov has betrayed us in making us believe Faust provides any deeper answer to the dilemma of the political leaders: it is rather the prelude to three films, pitching the dilemma of the great leaders and those striving for absolute power not between good and evil, between act and idea, but between the flesh and the mind. Sokurov’s reading of Goethe’s Faust might seem to distort the original text, but does it really?

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol

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1] Derevo (Tree) was an offspring from one of the mime and clown groups in Leningrad of the 1990s, Litsedei (Actors), originally founded by Viacheslav Polunin, opening with the famous Asisyai Show. Established in April 1988 Derevo of Anton Adasinskii (with Tania Kabarova, Lena Iarovaia, and A. Merkulov) had no premises in Leningrad and therefore toured most of the time (Prague 1990-93; Italy 1994, etc.). They use principles of immersion and meditation and are strongly influenced by Kazu Ono and the buto, which envisages the revelation of the soul through a meditative approach to theatre.

Faust, Russia 2011
Color, 139 minutes.
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Script: Iurii Arabov
DoP: Bruno Delbonnel
Production Design: Elena Zhukova
Costume Design: Lidiia Kriukova
Composer: Andrei Sigle
Editing: Jörg Hauschild
Cast: Anton Adasinskii, Johannes Zeiler, Isolde Dychauk, Georg Friedrich, Hanna
Producer: Andrei Sigle
Production: ProLine Film

Aleksandr Sokurov: Faust (2011)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2011

Updated: 04 Oct 11