[toggle title=”Specs” state=”close” ]
Director: Alexander Sokurov
Writer: Alexander Sokurov, Marina Koreneva, Yuri Arabov
Cast: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk, Hanna Schygulla
Length: 134 min
Label: Kino Lorber
Release Date: September 16, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: German: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- No Extra Features
The concepts in a Faustian story are not difficult to understand: humanity’s struggle for enlightenment and faith, coping with evil in the world, learning not to sell your soul to the Devil, et cetera. The concepts of an Alexander Sokurov film, however, are a little more obtuse than that. The famed Russian independent art-house director is responsible throughout his career for a number of notable meditations on human power and frailty, including the biopics Moloch (focused on Adolf Hitler), Taurus (Vladimir Lenin), and The Sun (Hirohito). Although not rooted in any real world case studies, Sokurov’s 2011 loose adaptation of Faust’s fall from grace purportedly completes this series examining moral corruption. Kino Lorber’s American Blu-Ray release magnifies the complexity of the Russian director’s form, style, and imagery, but that doesn’t make the film any less of an ordeal to finish.
Fans of pacing, cohesion, and plot, please take note: Sokurov’s Faust is not for you. This is not to say it is a bad movie, but it is a difficult film to dive into unless you are truly a fan of the director’s previous work. The sweeping opening shot of a fantastical, Germanic landscape is somewhat misleading, since most characters are situated within tight, oppressive rooms and alleyways. Sokurov is more concerned with emotion and physicality than logic and dialogue, thereby focusing on differing levels of physical human contact and our reactions to our bodies. The first introduction to a human form is a close up shot of a dead man’s phallus as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal Faust performing an autopsy in order to locate the soul, and this pretty much sums up the pervading sentiment of the film. Humans can be dirty, frail, and potentially empty of the sacred, nothing more than vessels to be exploited by the forces of evil. It’s a laugh riot.
What makes watching Faust that much more demanding is the general lack of dramatic tension. This is by no means the most necessary element for a movie, but when the crux of a plot centers on the inevitable satanic pact you know the poor Faust will eventually sign, it makes it hard to wonder what will happen next. Johannes Zeiler convincingly conveys the protagonist’s general ennui and despair, and really stands out as the highlight of the film when paired with Anton Adasinsky as the unnervingly conniving “Moneylender” (see: Mephistopheles). His morbid fascination with Adasinsky’s Moneylender propels the first act of the film, although even this can only carry a plot so far.Despite Sokurov’s propensity for the grotesque and the surreal, what you see is pretty much what you get with Faust. The German scholar pines for a girl, the girl is difficult to sway, the German scholar makes a pact with the Devil for one night with her, and so on. Add in a dash of murder, guilt, not to mention a final act slog through barren, hellish wastelands, and you get nearly two-and-a-half hours of fun for the whole family. This climactic sequence is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, a chance for Sokurov to really flex his artistic muscles and deliver a Bergman-esque romp through theology, but even then it feels like the director is failing to live up to his potential. There are beautiful shots, and then there are those in which it feels like he took the easy, pretty route out.
One of the biggest problems I encountered in the film is almost certainly an unintended byproduct of the source material, but it’s still there if one really takes a close look at the story. Faustian retellings often concern a man of science or academia falling under the sway of a sly, corrupting money handler. Said loan shark or villainous merchant eventually is revealed to be in cahoots with the Devil, or is the Devil himself, and the learned man is reduced to damnation. Given the era in which Faust’s tale first appeared, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots between the morality tale and deeply-rooted anti-Semitism. Throw in Sokurov’s operatic, Germanic soundtrack, and the misshapen, prosthetic body of his Moneylender, and the line between pastiche and proto-National Socialism becomes blurred.
Filmed on 35mm, in the unusual aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Faust’s extremely stylized look is presented on Blu-ray with fine fidelity. Cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel employs a host of aging filters and distortion devices that makes the admittedly beautiful images look like someone had gone crazy with Adobe After Effects. The overall effect certainly puts you in an alternate reality, though it’s hard to say what kind of reality, or how “real” it feels. Less convincing is the use of a distortion filter that randomly skewes the image in many shots, making it almost look like a post-production mistake. Ultimately, whether one accepts all this gimmickry depends on whether one accepts Sokurov’s vision overall.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track sounds lively, with a pleasing dynamic range, presenting the German dialogue and the intricate sound design with fine body and clarity. There is hardly any music in the film.
There are no extra features with this release.
Although Faust won the Golden Lion Award for Best Film at the 2011 Venice International Film Festival, reception to the movie since then has been divisive at best. Fans, including Darren Aronofsky, have praised Sokurov’s trademark cinematic style, Faust’s talented cast, and excellent score. For the rest of us, unfortunately, it’s difficult to see past slow, meandering white men bemoaning the human condition while lusting after maidens fair. When approached correctly, new generations of artists and storytellers can resuscitate life into the oldest and most classic stories. More often than not, regrettably, these updated tales are simply retellings of the same old morality plays. In the case of Faust, it just so happens that the morality is questionable to begin with. Fans of Sokurov or the fable will enjoy this film. For everyone else, I suggest striking a deal with some other devil.