DVD Review: Faust
Faust is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Where to begin with a review of Alexander Sokurov’s Faust? Loosely based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 19th century play – generally regarded as the greatest work of German literature of all-time – this Russian film resolutely defies description on normal terms.
Sokurov adorns his film with sumptuous visuals throughout but adopts a very idiosyncratic storytelling technique which will prove baffling for most viewers. This is not a film to be watched lightly – you will need to be wearing your “intellectual hat” if you’re to make it through two and a half hours of Sokurov’s exceptionally erudite movie-making style.
In the 19th century Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler), a tormented scientist, desperately seeks answers to questions that hang tantalisingly beyond his grasp. Often he hires local grave robbers to dig up corpses so that he can dissect them, exploring the inside of the human body to satisfy his gruesome curiosity. What are the various organs for? What makes the body work? Is there such a thing as a soul and where is it to be found?
Hopelessly disillusioned by his father’s fake cure business, which mostly causes the death of patients rather than their recovery, Faust decides that he has had enough of spending his life chasing enlightenment. He buys a lethal poison and is about to drink it when he is interrupted by the arrival of devilish deformed racketeer Mauricius (Anton Adasinsky).
Mauricius leads Faust on a grotesque tour of the town, taking him into the underbelly of the community and tempting him with various sinful pleasures. He manipulates Faust at every opportunity, involving him in indulgence, lust and murder. Soon Faust finds himself infatuated with young washer-woman Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), and Mauricius eventually reveals that Faust can have her if he agrees to sign away his soul.
The film is remarkable to look at, with an array of amazing sets and locations beautifully captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The characters consist of a gallery of peasants, rogues and freaks, all performed evocatively enough by the actors but too obscurely written for the audience to truly identify with them.
Indeed, therein lies the main fault with Faust… it’s not just the characters but the story itself that is too obscurely drawn for the film’s own good. For example, so much of the dialogue takes place off screen that it becomes extremely hard to tell who is saying what during entire sections of the subtitled speech. On top of that, the dialogue itself thrives on tying itself into philosophical knots, a habit which is arresting for a while but ultimately becomes rather wearisome.
Faust won considerable admiration on the international circuit, crowning its achievements by becoming the recipient of the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It certainly has its strengths, such as the splendidly creepy performance of Adasinsky as the story’s Mephistopheles figure, and the wonderfully evocative photography. However, one would have to question whether the film deserves to have been showered with the accolades that it has received. The faults already mentioned – like confusing subtitling, perplexing dialogue and unclear story development – drag it down somewhat and make one wonder quite why it has earned such towering praise.
Having said that, Faust is worth a look, especially if you are interested in Faustian literature (e.g. Goethe’s play, Thomas Mann’s novel, or even the original Elizabethan play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe).
Just be sure to prepare yourself in advance for a very heavy-going experience and don’t allow yourself to anticipate some sort of extraordinary experience as promised by the glowing reviews. A life-changing, mind-blowing masterpiece, no. A flawed but interesting gothic melodrama, yes.
FMV Rating ***