Sun 20 Dec 2015
I came to know quite late the works of the Russian director Alexander Sokurov, and I cannot say I know them well today either. The first one I have seen was Russian Ark, a splendid exercise in virtuosity, composition and visual beauty, but lacking almost completely any epic structure. Next came the 3rd film in his tetralogy about men and power, The Sun which had emperor Hirohito in his days of defeat at the end of WWII as main hero. Now I have seen the 4th film in the series, a very different, special and personal version of the story of Faust. I am yet to see the first two films in the same series which deal with the portraits of Hitler and Lenin, as well as other of his works that drew the attention of audiences and critics like ‘Father and Son’. So the impressions here are to be seen as partial notes on my route of better knowing one of the major artists in modern cinema. I am yet to form a dependency for his work or to declare admiration for the director, but I may get there some day.
On many respects this ‘Faust’ is close to ‘Russian Ark’. It is one of the most beautiful and complex pieces of visual art that I have seen lately and I cannot skip mentioning here in this context the name of the director of photography Bruno Delbonnel author of such other wonderfully filmed works like ‘Amélie‘ or ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince‘. Sokurov creates a world of his own with hundred of characters, costumes, and behaviors studied and acted to the smallest detail. The world is a synthesis not only of the German world at the time Goethe wrote the original story but of all that was Europe from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. It can happen and it actually happens at any of the moments in that period.
Sokurov takes inspiration from the work of Goethe but does not follow it closely. This film is certainly not Goethe’s Faust, it is at best ‘inspired’ by it. It is Sokurov’s Faust before all – a work about a man, a scientist and a philosopher searching for the sense of life, mired by an incarnation of the Devil into knowing the savage real world and the wild people who populate it, choosing beauty in the person of a beautiful girl, selling the soul he does not believe it exists in order to spend a night with her, and eventually revolting against the payment he signed for. A more human Faust than in most of the other versions we know.
If this Faust was only a video art work I would have completely fell under its spell. It does have however a narrative dimension, and this is where I found the pace and the style unnecessarily complicated, and the usage of dialog too heavy to follow easily and to be a pleasant experience for the viewers. Acting on the other hand is exquisite – Johannes Zeiler is a Faust torn between the desire to conquer the universe by understanding its mechanics and the passion that burns up his human shell, Russian actor Anton Adasinsky is amazing as the ugly sub-human Moneylender who opens the door to Faust’s meeting with the ugliness of the world, and the contrasting Isolda Dychauk as a young botticellian Margarete who descends directly from Vermeer’s paintings. This is one of these movies where the attention is drawn at any moment by visuals, and when it ends you tell yourself that you must have missed many of the hidden and deeper ideas. This may be true, but not completely, as Sokurov seems to be one of those directors who love to keep some of the details explained for himself only, assuming that he knows them at all.