Issue 37 (2012)

Aleksandr Sokurov: Faust (2011)

reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2012

faustSokurov’s contribution to the Faust legacy is an enigmatic and challenging work. It joins a cinematic tradition of some thirty-odd film productions based largely on the legend and on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two-part play (1806-31). Its predecessors include Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1897 Faust: apparition de Méphistophélès; Georges Méliès’s 1897 Faust et Marguerite; F. W Murnau’s 1926 Faust (his last German film); and forward through many film renditions to Ansel Faraj’s 2009 psychedelic rock musical, set in Venice, California. Sokurov’s 2011 Faust renews hope that the topic is not yet trivialized beyond redemption.

Sokurov’s dramatis personae retains several familiar characters—Faust, the Mephistophelean Mauricio,[1] Margarete, her mother, her brother Valentin—yet few of the canonical episodes are recapitulated. Hence, for Faust aficionados (with less interest in Sokurov), the film is likely to be an exercise in frustration; for Sokurov aficionados (with less interest in Faust), the film is a rich opportunity to trace significant shifts in Sokurov’s work.

faustSokurov’s Faust is the last film of his so-called power tetralogy that includes Moloch (1999), Taurus (2001), and Sun (2005), respectively depicting political leaders Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito. For all its recognizable compatibility with the other films of the series, Faust marks a formal break from the previous films in three respects. First, runtime: the earlier segments share a runtime between 104 and 110 minutes each; at 139 minutes, Sokurov’s Faust is substantially longer. Second, diegetic time: the other three films share a compact slice in the leader’s life (arguably, twenty-four hours); Faust is not attentive to this constraint. Third, space: in the previous works, filmic space operates as two distinct environments: initially, a palatial, yet claustrophobic interior (for Hitler, Kehlsteinhaus fortress; for Lenin, the Morozov estate; for Hirohito, the Japanese imperial palace); then, an open, horizontal exterior, the “outing” (Hitler’s Ausflug, Lenin’s and Krupskaia’s picnic, Hirohito’s trip across the city to MacArthur). Each of the earlier films is structured around the visual and narrative break between these two locales.

In Faust, by contrast, the plot shifts constantly from place to place, as if the more luxuriating runtime and diegetic eternity also permitted Sokurov greater territorial indulgence.[2] What is signaled in Faust by this shift toward greater luxuriance of time and space? Several lines of argument suggest themselves, but one I find most convincing: Faust signals the “switch point” in the cycle, both its beginning and end. We may put the four films in the order of their intended production, beginning with Taurus. Alternatively, we may put them in the order of their actual production—Moloch (1999), Taurus (2001), Sun (2005), Faust (2011). Alternatively still, we may put them in the order of their fictional diegesis—19th century (Faust), 1922 (Taurus), 1942 (Moloch), 1945 (Sun). Regardless of these strategies, Faust emerges as the tetralogy’s bedrock, its massif central. It is from Faust that the other three films—shorter, lighter, less global in scope and vision—issue symptomatically.[3] Less to do finally with time or setting, Faust’s grander conceptual stakes are grounded in the entire errant world of secular life as such, including finally cinema itself.

faustIn Sokurov’s Faust, we are offered secularity at its most debased: a profane screen-world of farts, halitosis, bowel movements, coatis, perpetual war, rats, stench, barnyard fowl in the medical room, a pigsty tavern, a comet reduced to a ball of gas (“a fart!” as the tavern keeper understands it), a funeral procession interrupted by crated pigs, a graveside burial invaded by feral dogs, priests who have long ago signed the Devil’s pact, walls that infernally spurt cheap wine (“donkey piss,” as the characters remind us). In this world, the Devil—a capricious and epicene character—enters the church as if it were a private club: the priests, after all, are under contract; it is a convenient site for defecation; the Virgin’s statue is available for sexual play. This Devil, built backwards—in front, a low-slung belly, like buttocks; in back, a vestigial penis—is comfortable in such a reversed and perverted church, all the more so since Hell is not far away.[4]

In this fashion, throughout its 139 minutes, the film keeps the sacred relentlessly off-screen in a realm to which earthly visuality is allowed no access. Even the delicate Margarete, at the graveside of her brother, is no onscreen figure of salvation: her feral, mammalian face turns towards the lecherous Faust as she slowly realizes what the world could really be about. This, I would argue, is a very different screen than the ones we have encountered, for example, in Mother and Son, or Father and Son, in which the characters had been crafted as moving icons. Here, instead, the bodies in Faust are containers for human profanity. As scriptwriter Iurii Arabov puts it (with characteristic succinctness), “we made a picture about the contemporary man’s rupture with metaphysics” (“Faust bez mistiki…” ).

faustSokurov’s Russian-German-Austrian-Czech coproduction was shot and produced over a two-year period (17 August 2009 to its premiere on 8 September 2011) largely in the Central Bohemian town Kutná Hora, the castles at Lipnice nad Sázavou, Ledeč nad Sázavou, and Točník, as well as at Prague's Barrandov Studios.[5]  One additional location that cannot be captured by mere verbal description is the region surrounding Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, Sokurov’s final magnificent scene.

This inventory of European shooting locations is driven by Sokurov’s own larger logic: it would be rhetorical overreach to speak of Sokurov as a global filmmaker, but he can no longer be described as a Russian director, nor is his work adequately described as Russian cinema. With thirty-eight countries contributing to the film’s 9.3 million euro production budget, with a largely German-speaking cast,[6] a French-speaking Director of Photography, a Czech crew, and a Russian-speaking director, this multi-lingual cluster returns once again to the central debate of Russian Ark: is Russia to be considered a European country? Russian Ark had offered an intentionally contradictory answer: its final lines (“Adieu, Europe!”) suggested that post-1914 Russia ceased to be European; the film’s production suggested that—on its own terms—Russia had rejoined that community. Continuing the logic of Russian Ark, Faust now takes its European status as a given, evident in its shooting locations, its cast and crew, its German-language script, and its diegetic universe.

faustThis pan-European preoccupation is the first of several respects in which Sokurov’s Faust is in intimate dialogue with Russian Ark. A second point of engagement with Russian Ark has to do with the radically different status of the sacred in these two contrastive works. It is surely no accident—given Sokurov’s attention to titles—that he had earlier chosen a term [kovcheg], referring not only to a boat (for Noah’s family), or to a holy container (for consecrated tablets), but also (in the medieval meaning of “kovcheg”) to that recessed icon space on which the sacred image is laid.[7] “Russian ark,” therefore, was simultaneously four things: the Russian boat, Hermitage, icon panel, and cinema screen where the culture’s sacred heritage is projected.

By the time of Faust, Sokurov’s screen is no longer given over to that sacred function: soteriology lies off screen. In this context, Sokurov’s apparently unrelated concern for Russia’s European status would now seem to be less a matter of identity (“does Europe recognize Russia as European?”) than a matter of the uncertain achievements of secularity itself. “Nowhere,” Sokurov insists, “are there committed so many crimes as in the territory of the Old World—neither in Africa nor in America. It seems as if here education, humanism, parliaments flourish, but still the bombings continue; still, people are being killed” (Grinkrug ), One might, as ever, argue with Sokurov’s geo-politics, but it is useless to argue with his magnificent visual polemics.

faustThis skepticism towards European secularity drives many of the episodes. We are schooled to find Sokurov obscure, impenetrable, murky, and so each new Sokurov film in turn fulfills this grim template.[8] In fact, if these spectatorial anxieties could be suspended, the film is relatively lucid as secular critique, independent of the Goethe corpus: Faust, a medical doctor in search (among other projects) of the soul’s physical location, needs money. Rebuffed by his father, also a medical doctor, Faust visits the moneylender Mauricio, from whom he is initially unsuccessful at raising cash, but in whom he encounters instead a valuable interlocutor. Their chatty peregrinations constitute the rest of the film: they visit a bathhouse, where Faust first glimpses Margarete; then a tavern, where Mauricio arranges Faust’s inadvertent killing of Margarete’s brother Valentin; then Valentin’s funeral and burial; and so forth. If one were barbaric enough to think of Sokurov’s Faust as a road movie (on legs), its peripeteia become considerably less mysterious.

And this point reveals a third respect in which Sokurov’s Faust is in dialogue with Russian Ark: the linkage of its wanderings with a relentless allegorical drive. In Russian Ark, two wandering characters (the Westerner and the Russian) make their way through the Hermitage; in a denser interpretive register, they enact a jumbled Russian cultural history that serves as a cautionary tale about Western misconstruals. In Faust, two wandering characters (the Devil and Faust) make their way through the town and countryside; in so doing, they enact an aerobic exegesis on human frailty. Analogous to Russian Ark, Faust’s endless meanderings—in and around the medieval city, out into the deep countryside, and (most vividly) off finally to the millennial wastelands near Eyjafjallajökull—are the physical enactment of allegory, that is to say, metaphor stretched out into a protracted narrative (the “temple turned into the labyrinth,” as Fineman puts it). In both of these road movies, the simultaneous consumption of words and space might finally be what this conceptualist cinema is about.  

faustIn fact, Iurii Arabov’s dense dialogue is the hardest initial adjustment in watching Faust. His exhausting, retributive palaver, entangled in a jumble of subtitles, runs counter to most contemporary trends of laconic, visually-oriented film (most notably in Russia, the so-called New Quiet Ones [Novye tikhie]). It is, of course, unsurprising that Sokurov would resist cinema’s dominant expectations in this fashion: “It annoys the audience, as they believe cinema is created for the viewer," as he had once endearingly put it.[9] In this respect, Arabov’s prolix script conspires with the multi-lingual cast and crew to create a modern-day Tower of Babel, a stubborn provocation to contemporary trends. Here, one might speculate, a fourth intersection Russian Ark occurs: Faust’s rhetorical excess (on screen) and multiple working languages (off screen) require a linguistic virtuosity equivalent to the one-shot camera virtuosity of Russian Ark.

As for the camera work in Faust, Bruno Delbonnel might seem like an odd choice for Sokurov’s steep art-house style. Delbonnel’s work, after all, includes such mass hits as David Yate’s 2009 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Tim Burton’s 2012 Dark Shadows. One might anticipate, at worst, a high-concept DoP ill-matched with a low-concept director. The encounter, unexpectedly, is a good one: providing a broad range of visual caprices—the Disney-like opening shot, animation, anamorphic lenses, special effects—Delbonnel is in no way out of place with the spirit of the film. While the final sublime shot of Eyjafjallajökull is surely a small challenge even for a middling cameraman, Delbonnel’s talent is strikingly evident in a much more subdued moment. Just before Margarete’s key question (“Was it you who killed my brother?”), the screen falls silent; the light radically shifts; the screen’s surface texture becomes palpable. Margarete’s features turn translucent; her expression waxes demonically exultant, as if savoring Faust’s answer in advance; the boundaries between innocence and evil dissolve. Stripping this close-up shot of any script, set, or costume, the director entrusts it entirely to Bruno Delbonnel’s mastery.

Like the visual portfolio of unusual effects, the sound design too is replete with risks: its sound distortions, doubling recordings, aural overlays alienate our senses, reminding us of the allegorical status of the text. The lengthy forest scene after Valentin’s burial inter-splices the dialogues of Faust and Margarete with those of Mauricio and Margarete’s mother to suggest a rich set of correspondences between the pairs. These correspondences are in turn underscored by Sokurov’s own self-citation: Margarete’s mother reproduces verbatim Ewa’s remarks to Hitler (Moloch) on the nature of death. This complex orchestration, both aural and conceptual (between Faust-Mauricio-Hitler and Margarete-Mother-Ewa), encourages a lateral reading of Sokurov’s work more broadly from film to film.

faustTaken together, these design elements support a larger speculation. Sokurov’s work, crassly speaking, can often be divided into two kinds of cinema—the ascetic (e.g. Stone, the Japanese stories, Mother and Son, Father and Son) and the ornamental (e.g. Russian Ark, Mournful Indifference, Save and Protect).[10] Lush and indulgent costume design by Lidiia Kriukova, who has worked with Sokurov for all four tetralogy films, as well as for Russian Ark and Aleksandra, is a good match with production designer Elena Zhukova, who had earlier worked on Sun. Zhukova’s domestic interiors, background bric-a-brac, and urban clutter are visually suited to Arabov’s dense dialogue. Taken together, the crew provides a saturated screen that savors both the grand damnation of high sin and the rude peccadillos of everyday life. Faust, then, develops this second line in Sokurov’s work

In the end—and compatible with most versions of the Faust legend—Sokurov’s hero is a remarkably sinless character—a jaded roué, yes, but little more. This Faust had no intention to kill Valentin; he is unable (as far as we are permitted to see) to consummate his passion for Margarete; he even fails to stone the Devil to death (as if this were possible). Blundering off into a realm so beautiful that it might be mistaken for heaven, Sokurov’s Faust is consigned to eternal damnation not for murder, satanic blood contract, or fornication, but for his embodiment of secularity, that errant search for independent human knowledge, ruptured from spirituality.

Festival prizes seldom find their way to artistic works of lasting value. Such was the view at the 2005 Berlinale, when Sokurov’s Sun was passed over for the Golden Bear, which was awarded instead to South African director Mark Dornford-May (U-Carmen eKhayelitsha). For those who follow Sokurov’s work closely, the news that the 2011 Venice International Film Festival jury, headed by director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), had selected Sokurov’s film for the Golden Lion was a welcome breakthrough. While Sokurov’s inventory of prizes until Venice 2011 had been long and honorable, he had received no top international awards from (what has been until recently known as) A festivals.[11] Sokurov’s 2003 Father and Son had been given the FIPRESCI award at Cannes International Film Festival; otherwise, major juries have kept a certain cautious distance from Sokurov’s work, awarding him prizes instead for such ambiguous categories as “vision” and “spiritual search.” The Venice 2011 award put Sokurov in the wholly compatible company of Golden Lion winners Andrei Tarkovskii (1962 for Ivan’s Childhood) and Andrei Zviagintsev (in 2003 for Return).[12] It is a well-deserved honor that recognizes the extraordinary marshaling of talent in this culminating work of Sokurov’s tetralogy.


1] While the Devil is often abstractly invoked in Sokurov’s Faust, Mephistopheles’ name never appears in the film, and the character Mauricio is never explicitly linked to Mephistopheles. Sokurov is characteristically prickly on the subject of his anti-hero. See Grinkrug:
Grinkrug: The second most striking visual impression is the sight of Mephistopheles bathing.
Sokurov: Where did you get the idea that it is Mephistopheles? […] Was that name ever spoken, even once?
Grinkrug: The character associated with Mephistopheles from the traditional Faust—can it be said like that?
Sokurov: That’s a different matter; that’s more accurate.

2] One might construe the protracted episode after Valentin’s burial as such an outing, analogous to those of the other three films. My point here is different: the foundational dyad (mansion/outing) is broken.

3] Such an interpretation is hardly startling: in the interview with Ol’ga Grinkrug, Sokurov explains, “[Faust] is the finale—or the beginning. A tetralogy is a cycle through which one may move.” I bracket for the sake of argument Sokurov’s initial shifting hesitations about the hero of the fourth film. I should mention as well that the original order, which was to have begun with Lenin in Taurus (Savel’ev), anticipated a controversial domestic reaction. Accordingly, the Russian producers set out to raise its production budget from domestic sources alone (Ogurtsov). Because of associated delays, Taurus was completed only after Moloch.

4] Until Faust, Sokurov’s sacred sites could usually be traced according to several recurrent patterns. The sacred was often literalized as a chapel, but would also be visible as two other settings: the art museum and the military environment. While the military setting as sacred space might appear to the Western viewer as far-fetched, the texts support this supposition: Spiritual Voices is, after all, a film about the military border patrol at the Tadjik-Afghan frontier; Confession is unexpectedly a film about a naval patrol ship; Evening Sacrifice—the Orthodox vespers canticle of repentance (“…let my hands uplifted be an evening sacrifice” [Psalm 141:2])—is a film on the Soviet May Day demonstrations that includes repeated shots of military equipment and uniforms. We may choose other disconnected examples of these three settings (chapel, museum, military site), but all three are clustered in Sokurov’s 2001 short Elegy of a Voyage, in which the itinerary includes the St. Mariia Monastery (Valdai), the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum (Rotterdam), and the customs crossing at the Russo-Finnish border. 

5] Barrandov Studios, with its 4100 square meter sound stage, is considered the “Hollywood of the East,” best known for its collaboration on Nikita Mikhalkov’s 2010 sequel Burnt by the Sun 2, Andrew Adamson’s 2008 The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and Martin Campbell’s 2006 Casino Royale. Its complex, offering the largest European sound stage, will remain unchallenged even by the 3100 square meters of clear-space span at Glavkino, the sound-stage complex outside Moscow, launched June 2012 at the 34th Moscow International Film Festival. For further information, see Skliarova and Shumova; Medetsky.

6] Faust’s father, played by Icelandic actor Sigurdur Skúlason, was one major exception to this largely German cast.

7] The most interesting, recent exposition of the terminology is elaborated in Tarasov 2007: 42-67. I am grateful to Alexandra Smith and other correspondents of SEELANGS for their comments on this religious and technical terminology.

8] Weissberg, for example, describes Faust as “…a maddeningly opaque narrative and a brutalizing cascade of nonstop verbiage. The superabundance of subtitles doesn’t help, impeding the eye’s ability to take in the visual richness and hampering the mind’s capacity to connect what’s going on with the scenes before and after.”

9] Sokurov, “Molokh: Interview with Alexander Sokurov,” interview to DVD copy of Molokh (1999).

10] See Sokurov’s comment in Carels: “I feel as if there were two personalities inside me. One is very active, versatile, and exuberant; the other is sober, strong, and almost ascetic.”

11] The Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films (FIAPF), the international producers’ organization, accredits fourteen international film festivals (earlier known as the so-called A-festivals): Berlin, Cairo, Cannes, Goa, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, Mar del Plata, Montréal, Moscow, San Sebastián, Shanghai, Tokyo, Venice, and Warsaw.

12] The fourth Russo-Soviet director to win the Golden Lion was Nikita Mikhalkov for Urga in 1991.


Nancy Condee
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Anon., “Faust bez mistiki: fakty o novom fil’me Sokurova,” Weekend (RIANovosti), 8 February 2012.

Carels, Edwin, "The Solitary Voice: An Interview with Aleksandr Sokurov," Film Studies 1 (Spring 1999): 73.

Fineman, Joel, “The Structure of Allegorical Desire,” October 12 (Spring 1980): 46.

Grinkrug, Ol’ga, “Aleksandr Sokurov: Faust—i final i nachalo,” interview with Aleksandr Sokurov, Weekend (RIA-Novosti), 8 September 2011

Medetsky, Anatoly, “Film Studio Lures Know-How with Low Rate,” The Moscow News, 21 June 2012: 1-2.

Ogurtsov, Sergei, “Vozhd’ umiraet, no telo zhivet,” Vechernyi klub 25 August 2000: 3

Savel’ev, Dmitrii, “Nastoiashchee iskusstvo,” interview with Aleksandr Sokurov, Iskusstvo kino 4 (2005): 95-104.

Skliarova, Margarita and Zinaida Shumova, “Infrastruktura,” Kinobuk 2011. Rossiiskaia kinostudiia: obzor (Sankt-Peterburg: Nevafil’m, 2012): 32-35.

Tarasov, O. Iu. Rama i obraz. Ritorika obramleniia v russkom iskusstve (Moscow: Progress-Traditsiia, 2007), 42-67

Weissberg, Jay, “Faust,” Variety, 8 September 2011.

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 Schygulla
Producer: Andrei Sigle
Production: ProLine Film

Aleksandr Sokurov: Faust (2011)

reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2012

Updated: 06 Jul 12