A Deal with the Devil
The Russian filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, produced Faust between August 17, 2009 and September 8, 2011. The movie cost 9.3 million Euros and was funded from sources in 38 countries. Sokurov directed in Russian, although the film was post-synchronized in German. The technical crew was Czech and some of the film was shot at Barrandov Studios near Prague, the location of the largest soundstage in Europe. Exteriors were shot a Kutna Hora, a medieval town in Bohemia and, on the premises, of a number of castles in the Czech Republic. The Director of Photography is a French cameraman, Bruno Dubbonnel, who has worked extensively in Hollywood – he lensed Harry Potter and the Half-Breed Prince. The film’s concluding sequences were shot in hell.
The logistics of producing a major film in hell were daunting. Costs exceeded estimated budgets and Sokurov ran out of money. Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister of Russia, learned that Sokurov’s film was languishing for want of funds. He invited the director to his summer house in the country where the two men conferred for several hours. Sokurov told Moscow journalists that he advised the Prime Minister that "culture is not a luxury. It is the basis for the development of society." Two weeks later, Putin informed Sokurov that a charitable organization endowed for the arts in St. Petersburg had agreed to finance the remainder of the film. Sokurov and his crew returned to their location in hell and, after some additional privations, completed the picture.
Some critics regard Faust as a welcome sign that Russia desires to return to Europe and European culture. Sokurov attributed Putin’s generosity toward the film to the Prime Minister’s "deep understanding" and "appreciation" of German culture – Putin served in the KGB in East Germany. Sokurov himself asserts that his masters are "Dickens and Balzac" – that is, great European novelists. The level of international cooperation required to create an enormous and complex film like Faust has been deemed evidence of a willingness on the part of Russia to co-exist and cooperate, at least,with European sponsors of the arts.
At the conclusion of The Russian Ark, the principal consciousness informing the film, the man whose transit through the Hermitage we have watched, looks out a door at the foot of a vast and palatial marble stairway. The door opens onto a limitless sea and Sokurov’s meaning is that the "Russian Ark" as embodied by the Petersburg Hermitage Museum, has set sail, presumably carrying the precious freight of Russia’s unique culture away from Europe. The voice dominating the film says "Adieu." Some think Faust represents the landing of the Russian Ark on the Ararat of Goethe’s giant poem, a text central to Europe and its fate.
When Faust was awarded the Golden Lion in Venice in 2011, Putin called Sokurov by telephone a few minutes after the prize was bestowed to congratulate him. In recent months, Putin has been pressuring Sokurov to dub Faust into Russian. Sokurov says that the film’s fantastically complex sonic landscape would be destroyed by such dubbing and that the sound-track is too fragile to be tinkered with in that manner. So he has refused Prime Minister Putin’s request.
Faust is the fourth and, perhaps, the central film in quartet of pictures that Sokurov has called "the tetralogy of power." These movies explore how political power affects human beings and distorts their perceptions. The first of these films was Moloch (1999), a movie about Hitler and Eva Brann at Berchtesgarden. Taurus (2001) is about Lenin’s death and his inability to restrain Stalin. The Sun (2005) concerns a 1945 encounter between General McArthur and Emperor Hirohito resulting in the Emperor’s declaration that he was no longer a living deity. These three films were relatively short and observed Aristotelian unities of time and space: each movie took place within one closed environment (Berchtesgarden, Lenin’s home, the imperial palace) and the events depicted occurred within the scope of a single day. Faust is longer, spans more time and many locations, and seems unrelated in many ways to the preceding three films.
The preceding films in the tetralogy focus on powerful men at the point where they are about to stripped of their power. In Moloch, the radio reports on the battle of Voroznh, a precursor to Stalingrad and an encounter that military historians regard as stalling the Wehrmacht’s advance and, thereby, forcing Hitler’s troops into a disastrous winter war. Lenin, who is dying in Taurus (his astrological sign), goes for a picnic, meets a young Georgian politician, and, then, has supper with his wife – he is so ill that he can neither walk nor dress himself. Hirohito in The Sun is summoned to meet with General McArthur and has vivid visions of the bombing of Tokyo. In all three films, the powerful men are portrayed as clownish, isolated, physically unhealthy, and prone to strange obsessions. Hitler rants about vegetarianism and belittles his girlfriend who, in turn, makes fun of him; he does a ridiculous polka and twice is shown defecating. Lenin has to be dressed by his long-suffering wife and when his guest departs, he asks: "Who is this Stalin? Is he Georgian or something?" (Taurus has been interpreted as demonstrating that Stalinism is rooted in Leninism, a controversial point in Russian history.) Hirohito has to be dressed by courtiers in The Sun, pauses interminably before a door because he doesn’t know how to open it (he’s never had to open a door himself) and talks obsessively about horseshoe-crabs; the American soldiers who take him to McArthur are unimpressed by his appearance and call him "Charley" on the basis of his resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. In all three films, the creaturely, physical existence of these powerful men is emphasized as if to dramatize that these dictators are merely human beings. (Some critics have called the first three films in the tetralogy, the "dictator" or "tyrant" trilogy – Sokurov, however, dislikes this label and says that his themes are not political, that he isn’t concerned with dictatorship or tyranny, and that his interests in power are deeper and more metaphysical, an argument, perhaps, borne-out by Faust, a film that doesn’t seem to cohere with the other movies in the cycle.)
Sokurov has argued that the unhealthy pursuit of power derives from simple, human unhappiness. Sokurov says: "Pathological unhappiness in ordinary life drives these people...unhappy people are dangerous." This latter phrase: "Unhappy people are dangerous." is actually spoken in Faust.
Alexander Sokurov was born in southeast Siberia in 1951 (Irkutsk region) and educated in Turkmenistan. He is the son of a military officer and has repeatedly expressed great sympathy for Russian soldiers and sailors. (His very long documentary about Russian troops in Afghanistan, Spiritual Voices, should have been mandatory viewing by U.S. intelligence services – presumably, if that film had been studied by the American military, we would have avoided the pointless incursion into that country.) One of his recent films, Alexandra is about a Russian mother’s visit to the front-line to see her son, something that is apparently condoned and even encouraged in the Russian military. The film is a very clear-eyed and moving depiction of the war in Chechnyea and extremely sympathetic to the plight of the soldiers involved in that conflict – while also expressing considerable sympathy for the Muslim civilians caught in the fighting as well.
Sokurov studied history in secondary school and considered becoming a historian. However, he was hired at 19 to work for Gorky City Television as an assistant director. (Gorky is now called Nizhinii Novgorod.) For six years, he worked for the TV station and produced documentaries. While working at the TV station, he took night courses and completed a degree in history.
Sokurov’s documentaries caught the eye of some local film critics and they suggested that the young man submit an application to Moscow’s All-Union State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK), the Communist state’s film school. He was accepted to that school in 1975 and awarded an Eisenstein scholarship. At the film school, Sokurov met Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia’s leading director, and worked as an assistant on some of his pictures. Sokurov’s diploma film was an "unconventional rendition" of several short stories by Andrei Platonov. The film was considered subversive by his professors and banned by the Soviet censors – indeed, the movie was thought to be so offensive that Goskino officials (the censoring agency) ordered the destruction of the film’s negative. The movie’s cameraman didn’t want to see his work so blithely destroyed and so he hid the negative and, even, made a couple of prints. For a decade, the film called Lonely Human Voice, circulated unofficially as a "film-phantom" shown covertly at big city cinema clubs. Sokurov’s teachers at VGIK were sympathetic to the young man, despite their political reservations about him, and they suggested that he substitute some of his documentary work done for television in re-edited form. These films were accepted and Sokurov was awarded his diploma but as an "external student" who did not graduate with the rest of his class. Interestingly, Sokurov’s diploma submissions were also promptly banned and not authorized for release until 1988, the year the proscription on The Lonely Human Voice was lifted.
Sokurov is famously pugilistic and confrontational. Not surprisingly, a number of the films he made for Lenfilm, the official Soviet studio, were censored and, in fact, shelved. Sokurov seems to have courted misunderstandings and was typically in "hot water." Beginning around 1988, official attitudes toward his pictures thawed and since that time, Sokurov’s production problems have been primarily self-inflicted. (For instance choosing to shoot The Russian Ark in one continuous take on location in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg using largely natural light on the shortest day of the year – a day on which there are only four hours of natural sunlight.) Sokurov’s approach to his material is often perverse and, even, flippant. In Soviet Elegy, a documentary about Boris Yeltsin, Sokurov ignores all of the political controversy swirling about his subject and primarily focuses on silences between cryptic utterances by the politician. Sokurov’s documentary about the famous Fedor Chaliapin, a great Russian singer, never mentions music at all. His film about Leningrad is composed of official newsreels only and lasts 13 hours. A film called ...dolce has a 22 minute shot of an immobile character. Spiritual Voices opening shot, which is singularly majestic, lasts forty minutes. Audiences at Cannes thought that the projector bulb had burned out when The Sun was premiered – the picture seemed too dark to be seen. Whispering Pages, apparently based on Crime and Punishment, never shows Raskolnikov or any of the main characters and contents itself with exploring gloomy subterranean arcades and canals for 80 minutes. Stone, ostensibly a documentary about Chekhov’s house, involves a long encounter between Chekhov’s ghost and a bemused night-watchman. In The Second Circle, the entire action of the film consists of laborious, rather comical efforts to extract a corpse from an apartment building in the dead of winter. (It is something like Laurel and Hardy’s famous The Music Box only substituting a corpse and unwieldy casket for the piano in the Hal Roach two-reeler.)
Sokurov has worked in every possible genre, albeit unconventionally. (Sokurov has even had a television show, The Island of Sokurov, that was broadcast from Moscow in 1998 and 1999). He is a master of the technical aspects of film making and boasted that his film The Sun contained more CGI than The Lord of the Rings, but that his effects were designed to be "invisible." He favors making sequences of films – that is, cycles. In the West, his most famous film is Mother and Son; the sequel to Mother and Son, not surprisingly is Father and Son. Sokurov is scheduled to make another picture in the sequence called Two Brothers and a Sister. Sokurov has said that he favors literary adaptations and prefers books to movies – he has adapted Flaubert, Chekhov, Dostoevski, and George Bernard Shaw to the screen.
Rather disingenuously, Sokurov proclaims that he doesn’t care if anyone sees his movies. "Unlike a book," he says, "which must be read, a movie can exist without being seen." Despite his clashes with Communist censors, Sokurov is openly nostalgic for the Soviet empire. He is pro-military, nationalist, highly conservative, and extremely religious – all characteristics not typical to American or European film directors. Sokurov regards the Russian language as a unique vehicle of truth and, further, asserts, particularly in The Russian Ark, that Russia is the last bulwark of the great Christian cultures of Europe and that it must resist pressures eroding those cultures – he is opposed to feminism, avowedly homophobic, and, perhaps, even czarist in his political sensibilities.
The first two film versions of Faust occur at the dawn of film history: Lumiere’s Faust: apparition of Mephistopheles (1897) and Georges Melies Faust et Margerite in that same year. The great German director, F. W. Murnau’s 1926 version of the story, the last film he made in Germany renounces Goethe and is described as based on an old "Deutsches Volksage" – that is a "Germanic folk legend". At least a dozen other films adapt the story: notable versions are Brian dePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), the musicals Damn Yankees (1958) and The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire (1953); Raquel Welch and Dudley Moore starred in Stanley Donen’s 1967 Bedazzled, a film remade in 2000; Richard Burton plays the title role (with Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy) in an adaptation of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (1967). Jan Svankmajer’s grotesque animated version of the Faust story is one of the best and most literal versions; we saw it with this group and it was made in Czechoslovakia in 1994. Probably hundreds of films adapt the tale in an oblique way: examples are the Al Pacino film The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). The recent film A Master Builder (2014) reminds us that the source for that film, Ibsen’s play A Master Builder (aka Master Builder Solness) is a variant on the legend.
When someone talks about "Faust" either as an artistic creation or as a character, the first and most important question to raise is this: Whose Faust are you talking about? The subject of the legend, an arrogant and brilliant man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for wisdom or love or worldly success is so resonant that the story has been retold innumerable times. As may be expected, variants on the story differ extensively in their emphasis, thematic concerns, and ethical stance.
The literary critic, George Steiner, argues that our modern world brought into being by the European renaissance was founded on three myths, all of them unknown to medieval and ancient people. The renaissance gave birth to the paradigms of Don Quixote, Dr. Faustus, and, a bit later, Don Juan – these three figures, literally unimaginable before 1550, characterized intellectual themes important to the renaissance that are foundational to our sensibilities even today. Don Quixote is a man misled by popular culture who interprets the world around him in light of cheap and meretricious works of literature that he has read – he imagines himself a noble questing knight and imitates heroic romances on which he has fed his imagination. Steiner argues that Quixote is an new, innovative figure because he is not merely satirized and rendered ridiculous by his creator, Cervantes – instead, we come to see Quixote as heroic himself and, even, noble in his folly. Dr. Faustus is a alchemist, the precursor to today’s scientists, who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for arcane and, perhaps, deadly wisdom. He represents striving beyond all rational bounds, the desire to extend the limits of human understanding into realms where our knowledge may prove deadly to ourselves and others. The spirit of Faustus is, in some interpretions, the same spirit that invented the atom bomb and that destructively warms our climate in order work the miracles of modern technology. Don Juan seems a lesser figure, but one that is, perhaps, more prevalent – he signifies the willingness of modern people to pursue pleasure in an exorbitant, addictive and destructive manner; he is the spirit of the AIDS epidemic, the inventor of Internet pornography, the figure that embodies the boundlessness of human desire. Each of these figures represents humanity in transgression against the ordinary boundaries established by the human condition – they are Promethean figures that assert that the human imagination should be unbounded in its scope and not circumscribed by societal and political limits.
Dr. Faustus first appears in a cheaply printed, rather disreputable-looking chapbook published in Nuremberg in 1585, The Historia von D. Johann Fausten. The pamphlet – it is about sixty pages – collects legends about an alchemist said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for
what we would term scientific insight into "materials science" and chemistry. The little book is related to the then-prevalent German obsession with witchcraft and sorcery, a concern that plagued all of Europe at that time and resulted in the torture and execution of many alleged witches. But the book is also rooted in the revival of the arts and sciences characterizing the renaissance. The Historia reminds us that, at least in central and northern Europe (including Prague and London), the renaissance was, in large part, magical and grotesque – the study of necromancy, astrology, the search for the philosopher’s stone, science practiced by quacks, con-men, charlatans. In the chapbook, Fausten transacts business with a stinking and filthy late medieval devil and, thereby, wins great wealth, and is, then, torn to pieces by a flock of demons – nothing remains of him but bloody fragments of offal. The story is short, primitive, and horrible.
Almost immediately, Christopher Marlowe adapted the story into one of the monuments of Elizabethan theater, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1604). Lessing and a number of other German writers tried their hand at presenting the story as a play. Then, Goethe took up the subject beginning in the last decade of the 18th century. Goethe’s initial effort is known in Germany as Urfaust – that is, the "primary" or primordial Faust. The work was a Sturm und Drang play, one of the most effective in German literature, that transforms Faust’s story into a bourgeois romantic tragedy – Goethe imagines Faust as an old man who is rejuvenated as a result of a transaction with the Devil so that he can win the affections of a beautiful young girl, Margaret (or familiarly known as Gretchen.) The young Goethe’s concerns are primarily sexual and erotic and Faust mirrors his creator – with the connivance of Mephistopheles, Faust seduces the young woman; he also murders her brother, conspires with her to poison her duenna, an intermeddling Aunt, and, when she gets pregnant, abandons the girl. Poor Gretchen gives birth to Faust’s child, goes mad, and kills the infant. She is arrested, tortured, and, then, hanged. Urfaust is brisk and nasty and was regarded as thrilling theater. But, of course, Goethe was not willing to leave the story in this initial state and spent the rest of his life expanding the narrative into a vast epic, the closet drama that we know as Faust, published in parts between 1806 and 1832.
Goethe’s epic is central to the German language and consciousness. For Germans, the work is equivalent to Shakespeare’s plays, an index of cultural attitudes, aspirations, and prejudices. Most Germans probably know fifty or more proverbial sayings derived from work and it is the most-quoted piece of literature in the language. Conceived as a play, but almost never performed, the work is encyclopedic in its ambitions – Goethe poured all of his remarkable genius into the poem and it contains every conceivable kind of verse: there are ballads, long and philosophical discourses composed in noble diction, passages of bawdy obscenity, famous lyric poems, wild and extravagant sections of phantasmagoria. The sordid tale of Faust and Margaret occupies most of Part One of the play, although Goethe equips the love story with elaborate prologues, lengthy discourses on alchemy, magic, and demonology and a Walpurgisnacht sequence involving demons and naked witches cavorting on the Brocken moutaintop in Saxony. Part Two is more discursive and episodic; it is also vastly more lengthy and, in fact, probably unknown to most Germans, even those who habitually quote from the work. Part Two is remarkable, however, in that involves Faust’s efforts to interfere with nature to benefit human beings – he drains swamps so that gleaming new cities can be built. At the end of Part Two, Faust dies, but the army of demons who come to snatch his soul are repelled, in part by the soul of Margaret who has become Faust’s female savior and who intercedes on his behalf. It’s all immensely complex, difficult, and wonderful – the last thirty pages of Faust (II) are among the most majestic and noble in all of world literature. The ending of Goethe’s Faust is decisive in European art, particularly in the field of musical composition – both Wagner and Liszt composed symphonic tone poems on that subject and Mahler’s Eighth symphony sets chorales from the climax of the poem.
After Goethe, just about every major German writer (and most European authors in general) have tried their hand at Faust. Grabbe puts Don Juan and Faust together in a rather comical play written in 1826. Nikolaus Lenau and Heinrich Heine wrote versions of the story as did Pushkin and Paul Valery. In the twentieth century, Thomas Mann’s last and, perhaps, greatest novel Dr. Faustus (1947) applies the theme to the catastrophe that befell Germany between 1933 and 1945. In Mann’s novel, a wildly ambitious composer encounters the devil and sells his soul in exchange for being granted creative, if diabolical, imaginative powers. The composer, Adrian Leverkuehn, becomes famous for his sinister musical creations, but goes mad – his insanity coincides with the destruction of Germany and German culture at the end of World War Two. Mann is too scientific and rational to suggest that the devil is unambiguously real – he provides an alternative explanation for Leverkuehn’s genius and insanity: the young man intentionally infects himself with syphilis in order to derange his senses into genius. Mann’s book is a great Gothic cathedral of a novel and also one of the monuments of German literature.
This literary history exists primarily to be disregarded. Like most versions of the Faust tale, Sokurov focuses on the fatal romance between the protagonist and the young girl, Margaret. The erotic element of the Faust story has been its most popular aspect – this is the kernel of the tale in Goethe’s initial Urfaust and the subject of most romantic-era treatments of the story, for instance, Gounod’s opera. That said, it’s my estimate that, at least, half of the dialogue in the film consists of quotations or allusions to Goethe’s text. Sokurov’s use of those materials, however, is idiosyncratic and perverse – the characters seem to be perpetually muttering fragments of Goethe’s verse, but, often, in contexts alien to the original narrative use of those words. An example is Margaret’s whispered statement that her spirit is sad, that she has lost her serenity – her words are derived from a very famous lyric in Goethe’s Faust (Part One), a poem recited by Margaret that is generally known as Gretchen am Spinnrade ("Gretchen at the spinning wheel;" this poem is famous as an art-song in setting composed by Franz Schubert – indeed, the little poem is one of the most famous of all German Lieder. Sokurov’s film shows Gretchen mumbling a few lines of the poem – but she doesn’t speak the entire verse and, of course, unlike the play (and the song) certainly doesn’t sing the words while spinning.
Sokurov is fishing deep waters with his Faust. The leviathan in those waters in F. W. Murnau’s 1926 Faust, a landmark in cinema history. There is no avoiding comparison between the two films.
Murnau’s film, like Sokurov’s version, is visually exorbitant and represented state of the art film making in its day. Indeed, Murnau’s film is an important example of the elaborate and effective special effects that German technicians were capable of orchestrating at UFA’s Babelsberg studios. Sokurov’s movie also relies heavily on CGI, although the Russian director typically conceals his manipulation of the image – slight distortions that have the effect of creating an uncanny atmosphere. (Sokurov foregrounds distortion in his use of anamorphosis, that is, lenses that seem to compress and lengthen the image; this obvious form of distortion, an apparent and overt and, even, irritating special effect is deployed to suggest that the world itself is perturbed and misshapen by the presence of evil in it.) Most notably, Sokurov uses Murnau’s aspect ratio, known as 4:3 (technically Murnau’s Faust is 1:29:1) – that is, an almost square screen that will appear pillar-boxed on most Tv sets. Silent film was ordinarily shot in an aspect ratio of 1:33:1. Sokurov’s aspect ratio for his version of Faust is 1:33:1. This is an unusual aspect ratio for a modern film and contributes to an effect that seemingly interests Sokurov a great deal: the notion of things being crowded into narrow space into which they don’t exactly fit. (This curious obsessional element is reiterated again and again in the film: several figures try to squeeze through a door at the same time and get stuck; Mauritius leads Faust to Hell through a narrow fissure in which they both get pinned from time to time.) Both pictures exploit a sense that the image is claustrophic, that it contains more than can be reasonably shown at one time.
Although I admire, Murnau’s Faust, the film has always left me cold emotionally. The director’s chiaroscuro effects are awe-inspiring but, also, seem an empty exercise in stylistic ingenuity that doesn’t contribute to the narrative. Pictorially, the film conflates two major influences: Albrecht Duerer’s apocalyptic engravings and woodcuts and Casper David Friedrich’s spectral landscapes. Murnau’s Faust is a handsome old man whose beard and white mane are suffering from a "bad hair" day. The film’s spectacular beginning seems to mix references to Exodus and Job. The devil, played with enormous gusto by Emil Jannings – he is the real star of the film – confronts a rather pallid, if statuesque, white angel. The two quarrel about whether goodness exists on earth, resulting in a wager: if the Devil can corrupt the virtuous Faust, then, the Angel loses the bet. Mephisto, as the Devil is called in the film, hurries to earth where he stands like the Matterhorn towering over a quaint medieval city. He wafts the plague into the town and people start dropping like flies. Faust tries to save the sick, but fails. In despair, he summons the devil at a crossroads in a murky, sinister meadow. The devil is a portly slovenly figure with a strangely shaped head, a slicked-down reptilian profile, and a nasty squint. He is instantly comical – Jannings is obviously enjoying the role immensely. He offers Faust one day of power to save the sick and the hero does succor a number of dying persons successfully. But when he is repelled by the crucifix held by a moribund girl, the mob turns on him and hurls stones at his head. Faust flees into his study, bolts the door and decides to kill himself with a deadly potion. As he is about to quaff the poison, he beholds the face of a beautiful young man reflected in the lethal decoction. Mephisto is hovering nearby and tells Faust that he is seeing himself as a handsome young man. Mephisto offers to restore Faust’s youth if he will sign a pact in blood. As in Sokurov’s film, the tempter has very poor, even childish-looking handwriting, although Murnau’s devil, at least, can spell. (Murnau’s Mephisto offers the contract on a parchment in which the words blaze in fiery letters.) Poor Faust can’t resist the chance to be young again – after all, Mephisto tells him, you spent your life groveling in dusty books and have never even really "lived." He turns Faust into a youth and rejuvenates himself in the bargain: Mephisto becomes an unctuous-looking, rakish young devil who looks exactly like a fat Bela Lugosi. Throughout the picture, Jannings is ridiculous, grotesque, and very, very funny. Throughout the picture, Murnau is shrewd about Faust’s hypocrisy: for instance, when Faust first encounters the written contract to sell his soul, we see that he focuses on two words: Macht and Herrlichkeit (that is, Power and Splendor or Glory). Thus, although Faust persuades himself he is doing business with Satan to save the villagers, it’s pretty clear that his principal motives relate to securing power and glory.
Murnau’s credits never mention Goethe, but it’s apparent that his film has a sort of "Cliffs Notes" relationship to the poet’s huge epic.
In an European review of Sokurov’s Faust, someone referred to Faust’s tempter, called Mauricius in the film, as "Mephistopheles." Sokurov immediately took umbrage and said: "The name ‘Mephistopheles’ occurs nowhere in my film. Is that word spoken at any time in the film?" In my view, this reaction is a bit disingenuous. After all, Sokurov assigns many famous lines from Goethe’s Faust spoken by the satanic Mephistopheles to Mauricius in his film. The most noteworthy of those lines is Mauricius’ self-description to the effect that he "is the one who does good by perpeturally denying goodness" – I am paraphrasing: in German the line is "Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint" (I am the spirit that continuously denies – that is the spirit of negation.) If Sokurov didn’t want people to perceive Mauricius as Mephistopheles than he shouldn’t have given this character many of Mephistopheles’ lines.
In Sokurov’s film, Mauritius is a "Wucherer" – that is, a "usurer." He is described in the subtitles as a "moneylender". It is interesting to note that the somnolent Russian in the carriage immediately reacts with instinctive hatred when confronted with this usurious "moneylender" and tries to strangle him. Sokurov suggests, in a not particularly subtle way, that the Russian people (the man seems to be a peasant) are instinctively enemies to the kind of evil represented by Mauricius.
Mauricius, of course, is a Latinized variant on "Maurice." Sokurov’s film explains the meaning of the name: "it means black..." This is not exactly correct but close: "Maurice" derives from "Moorish" and, originally, described someone who was dark-complected, swarthy.
The final twelve minutes of Faust were shot on-location in Hell. On the basis of tax incentives and an aggressive Film Board that promotes production in that place, Hell has become an attractive place to make a movie. Just as Toronto is now the favored location in the Western Hemisphere to shoot a film requiring urban locations (Toronto has "stood-in" for New York, Boston, and Chicago), so Hell has become an increasingly popular as a place to shoot footage requiring extremes of heat or cold – several recent pictures involving imagery of desert warfare, including parts of Zero Dark Thirty, were made in Hell as were a number of movies involving mountaineering, most notably the German epic Nordwand (2008), making use of the infernal regions zones of snow and ice.
Until digital video technology, Hell’s frigid cold and blazing heat posed serious problems for film production. Celluloid film either melted in the fiery parts of the country or the mechanical mechanisms of the camera froze-up in its icy sectors. Most films were shot on the ramplike terraces connecting the different rings or circles that make up the hellish landscape. New digital technology enables film makers to lens action in both the hot and cold circles, thus opening up a variety of dramatic vistas for movie production.
Hell’s Film Board, Infernal Productions, offers tax incentives and a variety of amenites and perquisites to those casts and crews willing to brave the difficulties of the location – after all, one must surrender all hope when entering into the inferno. But Hell’s denizens are eager for the revenue connected with film production in their various zones of damnation and infernal catering services are said to be particularly excellent. Hell, of course, is non-union, offering crew and other personnel who will labor long hours for non-standard wages. Both the Mayo Clinic and Hormel Foods have operations there.
What does Sokurov’s Faust mean? Why was it made? No single answer can be proposed to these questions. Most viewers will initially experience the film as a chaos of discordant images and sounds. The picture overwhelms its audiences with a sense of grotesque plethora – there is simply too much in the film, too many subtitles, too many peculiar locations and odd-looking extras, too much philosophical discourse half-ranted and half-muttered on the frontiers of a sound-track that is sometimes difficult to hear. Too many of the things that we see are inexplicable: what is the dangly thing on a chain in the opening shot? Who or what are the hideous figures that appear to stalk Faust after he has successfully bedded Gretchen? What can’t Mauricius spell? Why doesn’t Faust’s father loan him any money? These matters, and many others, are enigmatic and mysterious. To some extent, we see without seeing – the images that we watch are hard to interpret both literally and figuratively. But, despite the apparent capricious chaos, certain patterns can be detected in the film.
One access point to the film’s thematic concerns is the concept of the Germanic grotesque. Much of Faust is clearly intended as comedy, as a kind of raunchy slapstick humor. This humor partakes in the genre of the "grotesque." German scholars and literary critics have written extensively on the concept of the "grotesque" in art and literature – the most famous example is the work of the German literary critic, Wolfgang Kayser. Kayser identifies a strain of the German imagination that is fascinated by things that are misshapen, ugly, monstrous, and, yet, also somehow comical – he cites as examples E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (about a monstrous figure that blinds bad children), interludes in Jean-Paul Richter’s novels, Goethe’s diabelerie in Faust, Kafka’s stories and novels, and films like The Golem and Nosferatu made in the Expressionist period. Kayser argued that the grotesque arose from an unresolved clash of discordant elements. (Later German literature contains many examples as well – the nightmarish details in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus and much Gunter Grass’s work, for instance, The Tin Drum with its monstrous dwarf with magical powers.) An important theme running through these works is human nature is fundamentally "grotesque", absurd, and comical – we perceive ourselves to be ensouled, beings with spiritual psyche and essence, and, yet, our souls are trapped in prisons of decaying meat exuding nasty secretions and odors. Practitioners of the grotesque think in comical and absurd to be "embodied". In a sense, the Grotesque represents a necessary antithesis to German idealism – if reality is essential "ideal" in the sense that it is an impalpable, ever-evolving spirit or Geist (as Hegel argues), then, what are we to make of all of the detritus comprising the material world. The more that we yearn to be spiritual, the more confounded we are by the humiliating and carnal Stoff from which are made.
Faust’s first image of a human being is a giant close-up of the greenish penis of a decaying cadaver. Sokurov’s film continuously emphasizes the genitals as a primary symbol that human beings are made from rotting meat. Faust’s father roots around in the vagina of his swooning patient. (He extracts an egg from her that is inexplicably hard-boiled – and she promptly eats it.) Later, we see a close-up of Margaret’s mons veneris, a correlate to the image of the decomposing penis in the opening moments of the film. Mauricius has his genitals stuck in the cleavage of his buttocks, something that amuses the laundresses who leer at him; his penis reads as a greenish tale attached to his coccyx. People stick their heads in other people’s groins. At one point, Faust lifts Margaret’s petticoats to look at her vulva.
In broad terms, most of the film proceeds under the emblems of genitalia, death, and sickness. Figures are shot from strange camera angles that shatter them into fragments, body parts, seemingly severed heads appearing from beneath floors, strangely contorted images of people who seem like reanimated corpses. The film is clogged with odd gestures, strange grimaces, peculiar prancing or staggering ways of walking. Faust’s father cradles Faust’s head as if his son has been decapitated and people are continuously falling all over one another, embracing in bizarre ways, entangling limbs and bodies in weird hugs and wrestling matches. In this world, Good doesn’t exist but Evil does – a fundamental tenet of the Grotesque. The earth under the feet of the character is mined with strange subterranean tunnels – there are odd, inexplicable connections between places, cavernous public baths, fissures and nooks and crannies. Characters jam themselves into corners or stand in cubby-holes too small for them. Everything is heavy, material, bodily: Mauricius twists his reptilian body to fart after blithely downing the hemlock and, then, stinks up Faust’s already noisome atelier with his flatulence. Mauricius has to defecate and squats on the public street until he suddenly has the inspiration of going into a church to empty his bowels, presumably on the altar or in the sacristy – on the soundtrack, we hear him moaning and growling as he shits. Everything is as grossly physical and material as possible.
This grotesqely embodied world is mirrored by Sokurov’s bizarre camera technique and editing syntax. The director doesn’t use establishing shots. In most sequences, we can’t tell exactly where we are located. Spatial continuities are disrupted and scrambled: the viewer often can’t reliably locate the characters – where are they? There are odd elisions and gaps in the editing. Shots are inserted showing action that we can’t interpret – only later is the image explained: there are delays between our seeing something and being told what we are looking at. (For instance, we see Mauritius clawing at some bedding – the image is unmotivated and seems inexplicable. But the next shot contains some dialogue that retroactively establishes that Mauritius has lost his list, presumably an index of his victims, and is searching under his pillow for his ledger.) Startling images are interpolated into the film that don’t seem to have any real narrative consequence: we see Faust apparently lifting Margaret’s petticoats to look at her genitals. There is a close-up of her placket and bare skin. A longer shot, however, shows that she seems completely unaware that she is being probed in this way – it’s as if the two adjacent shots are occurring in parallel universes. Adding to our disorientation is the film’s unique color scheme: a combination of over-exposed yellowish close-ups that make Margaret look ethereal and other-worldly, almost like of Spielberg’s aliens from Close Encounters, faded browns and sepia tones, and, most notably, a sort of nacreous green described by one critic as the color of "lichens."
The world presented by the film is chaotic, filthy, and congested, so absurdly confusing that the only rational response is suicide. Faust is cheerfully and casually planning to kill himself with hemlock. That is, until Mauricius swigs down the lethal decoction as if were Mountain Dew. As a prelude to his self-slaughter, Wagner, Faust’s insane henchman, paints the great philosopher and doctor’s toenails and, then, has Faust cool his feet in a frothy bath of water infused with nettles. (The emphasis on the feet is an important thematic motif in the Grotesque – a focus on the lowest aspect of the human body. Sokurov’s focus on Faust’s feet seems to me to mirror a famous scene in Murnau’s Faust in which the feet of a corpse loom like cliffs in the foreground of the image – a pictorial scheme derived from the foreshortened Christ in one of Andrea Mantegna’s paintings.) The emotional tone is completely discordant to the narrative: Faust’s preparations for his suicide are blithe, indifferent, and the film observes the whole thing with comic aplomb. Wagner is too close to Faust and seems to yearn to be his lover. But, then, everything in the movie is too close, too overwhelmingly physically present, shoved to close together.
Sokurov ties this altogether with an astounding, simple, and bizarre metaphor – this is the motif of constriction. The landscape of the movie is filled with obscene strictures, things clogging passageways, claustrophobic spaces crammed too overflowing with too much stuff. Examples of this motif are innumerable. However, I will point out some of the most noteworthy specimens:
2. Alleyways are always full of soldiers, Hasidic Jews and wandering rabbis, goats and sheep and all sorts of domestic animals. The streets are too narrow, it seems, for the traffic on them;
3. Faust, Mauricius, and his landlady all try to squeeze through a tiny door at the same time with predictable and comic consequences; they seem to wrestle for the key to open the door;
4. Faust and Mauricius get into a tiny, foul-smelling coach where there is a drunken Russian who tries to strangle the moneylender; everyone is jostled together in the small enclosed space;
5. Wagner has made a homunculus (it looks like something out of an early David Lynch movie) and carries the thing around squeezed into a glass retort – the little slimy figure is clearly too large for the glass prison in which he lives;
6. In Hell, Faust encounters three dead men lying by a stygian river. The men jump up and wrestle with him, trying to warm themselves with his body heat. After Faust drives them away, we seem them lying together, all touching one another, crowded into the frame of the shot;
7. After Faust sleeps with Margaret, Mauricius crams him into armor that seems about three sizes to small for the hero. The two, then, depart for Hell, a journey that takes them through an absurdly constricted and narrow fissue in what appears to be a vast lava-field.
Throughout its length the film proceeds in an systolic-diastolic pattern of contraction and expansion, a rhythmic opening up and, then, crushing together. Scenes showing open space are usually immediately followed by episode involving figures cramped together in places that are simply too tight and too confined for them. The movie opens and closes, expands and, then, immediately clenches itself shut – it is a movie designed on the principle of the sphincter.
Most remarkably, this pattern of constriction is reflected programmatically in an utterly peculiar shot at the film’s outset. As the clouds part high above the medieval city, we see a mirror hanging on a golden chain. The chain leads upward out of the frame. The mirror has an elaborate gilt frame and there is a veil, it seems, pendant to one of the framing corners of the glass. The mirror reflects blue sky dappled with clouds. We don’t know who is supporting this mirror and so far as I am aware no critic has remarked upon this apparition although it figures prominently in the first twenty seconds of the film. Either the camera ducks down toward earth or the hanging mirror is dragged upward and so, no sooner glimpsed, it vanishes from the film never to return. What does this mean? The mirror is shaped like a conventional cinemascope aspect-ratio. It seems that God is holding a chain from which He dangles a mirror that we read to be the size of an ordinary cinema image, an elongated cinemascope aspect ratio. That mirror shows the same sky that the pillar-boxed shot in which the mirror appears is located. Sokurov seems to be drawing attention to the shape of his screen: the elongated frame suggests the aspect ratio that we expect when we go to the movies and draws attention to the fact that the screen that faces us is conspicuously more narrow and confined than the screen ratio that we cued to expect. Sokurov is showing that his picture frame is too narrow and too confining. The aspect ratio in which the film is shot, accordingly, creates images that contain too much for the size of the screen. This creates a continuous sense of claustrophobia, constriction, and paranoid confinement.
This device explains an element of the film that critics have universally found irritating – the anamorphic images that distort the shape and appearance of the characters and flatten the pictorial space by foreshortening our perspective. Probably about 10 percent of the images in the movie are distorted by using a lens that crams the figures together in a disorienting way in the field of the picture. With this device, Sokurov signals that his pictorial field is continuously too small and tight to effectively show everything that obstructs and clogs the world shown in the film: there’s simply not enough space to dramatize and show all the material stuff that is stuffed together in the film’s images.
I will make a last observation on this subject but, perhaps, the most important. Goethe’s Faust is too big for the movie. It contains too many themes, philosophical inquiries, too many characters and places, too many Greek and Roman gods, too many witches and devils, too much of everything. Sokurov’s movie is filled to overflowing with dialogue, incidents adapted from Goethe, muttered asides invoking famous proverbs from the poem, but still the movie seems too small for the epic subject matter. The motif of constriction and confinement, accordingly, also applies to the whole project. Sokurov tries to stuff as much of Goethe as possible into his movie and so the film becomes bloated with discourse, a balloon inflated to the point that seems always about to explode. The geyser shown at the end of the movie, perhaps, is an emblem for this surfeit of material – it rhythmically subsides, heaves, and, then, expands a plume of steam and water into the air. As Faust notes, the hot water rises encountering in the same narrow passageway – yet another sphincter – the denser cold fluid sinking down "to the interior of the earth." The cold water boils, expands, and blows itself out of the geyser’s hole. Like the geyser, the film is a kind of perpetuum mobile, a perpetual motion machine, that shoves too many things together in too tight of a space, forces discordant images into collision with one another, and, then, periodically erupts.
"Totalitarianian states don’t mean to destroy artists but rather desires to make them submit to the state’s will..." (Sokurov was slated for transport to a Siberian labor camp. He was saved, he claims, by Gorbachev coming to power.)
"I’m a very literary person, not so much a cinematographic person. I don’t really like cinema that much..."
Some critics complain of the torrent of words that fills Faust. Sokurov’s response was simple: "Of course it annoys the audience as they believe that cinema is created for the viewer..."