Aleksandr Sokurov’s most recent feature is inspired by Goethe’s Faust, taking on one of Europe’s most popular and famous legends. The film is very much Sokurov’s production though, using the legend as a starting point, rather than re-filming one of the previous adaptions.
Faust (Zeiler) is a doctor, specialising in the human soul. He and his assistant Wagner (Freidrich) dissect cadavers, searching for the soul, but have not yet reached any concrete conclusions. Faust is very poor. So poor, in fact, that he is on the verge of starving. He goes to the local pawn-shop to try and sell his belongings, but the money-lender (Adasinsky), who is an incarnation of the devil himself, does not want anything that Faust has to offer. Striking up a bizarre friendship, the money-lender plays the long game, drawing Faust deeper into a world he cannot escape, including a murder, and the victim’s fetching sister Margarete (Dychauk).
Faust deals with the darker side of humanity, the inner base desire for earthly pleasures. Faust is more than willing to trade away his soul for one night with Margarete, apparently not bothered by the eternal fate of his soul. The money-lender takes full advantage of Faust’s lusty obsession, manipulating him into a parasitic quasi-friendship where only he can gain, but Faust still believes otherwise. The film explores a constant unhappiness and dissatisfaction with everyday life, with what the characters already have, and their ceaseless, selfish desire for more, and the trouble that it leads to. In Faust, power can undoubtedly corrupt, as our protagonist seems to go further and further down a bad path with every dodgy opportunity he grasps.
Sokurov’s vision with Faust is very grand, the picture is vast in scope and his directorial execution gives a sweeping cinematic experience, especially in the closing scenes filmed in Iceland, which represent Hell. Other scenes are damp and claustrophobic, in tiny rooms and cellars, showing the squalid basis of Faust and the money-lender’s friendship. The colour palette of the film is dour, with many beiges, dull greens, blacks and greys. The film is quite dark too, with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel utilising a lot of shadows. Nothing adds up to a cheery picture, with a grimly enjoyable apocalyptic tone sometimes seeping through. The script is fairly slow moving, and constantly felt like quite hard work. It demands attention throughout, and has a long running time, which combines to make parts of the film feel like a bit of a slog to get through.
The standout performance is Adasinsky as the money-lender, as a hunched, deformed glob with a tail instead of genitalia. He embodies a slimy manipulative character to the tee, and is entirely believable as a creature who could give with one hand and take away twice as much with the other, simpering and shouting with equal authenticity. He is magnetic on screen, and very enjoyable to watch, love and loathe. Zeiler too gives a solid performance, his moral deterioration playing through his face as he lurched from one sin to another, behaving more and more dubiously. As a duo, the two men balance each other out, their symbiotic friendship turning more and more bizarrely away from reality.
Faust is a film that will divide audiences. It requires a lot of effort and attention, is quite slowly paced in parts, and not everyone will think it’s worth it. But give it a shot, and you’ll be rewarded with a sweeping narrative, impressive visuals, and an engaging lead duo.