A largely impenetrable effort, Faust concludes Alexander Sokurov’s tetralogy on the corrupting nature of power – including the director’s vision of Hitler (Molokh), Lenin (Taurus) and Hirohito (The Sun) – in a majestic, impressive and utterly disconcerting manner. This time drawing from Goethe’s classic tragedy, Sokurov’s feature is a bold interpretation of the legend, forgoing coherence for intellectual and stylistic chaos.
Faust (Johannes Zeiler), a professor, craves knowledge beyond the limitations of human comprehension. Debating the existence and location of the soul, his figurative and literal hunger lead him to the stone-paved town’s moneylender (Anton Adaisinskiy) who takes him on a tour of the town and its surroundings, firing existential questions at Faust until the professor’s soul is his to take. While Faust initially shows no sign of fear, his involvement in the death of a young soldier, and his lust for the soldier’s sister Margarete (Isolde Dychauk), provides the film’s Mephistopheles an opportunity.
Visually referencing everything from Flemish painting to F.W. Murnau, Sokurov’s film is cramped and bustling, providing moments of beauty before revealing their cold and seedy insides. After descending from the heavens, the film’s opening sequences makes its way into the stone-paved medieval town before discovering Faust in the middle of a gruesome dissection. This is not a romantic adaptation and Faust is not a sympathetic figure.
Instead, the doctor is seen as an opportunist already lusting for power prior to meeting the snivelling, unappealing and pathetic moneylender. There is an incredible arrogance to Faust, and by depicting him as a man already tempted by this impossible knowledge, Sokurov highlights the parallels between him and the director’s previous protagonists – Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito – even if they handle it differently. And by painting him in this manner, and this devil as a quick-worded but uncharismatic and hideous creature, Sokurov places the blame squarely on Faust, including the “corruption” of Margarete.
Beyond the central characters and non-stop dialogue filled with existential ruminations, Faust is incredibly dependent on its look, particularly through Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and Elena Zhukova’s production design. The dense sets are accentuated by the film’s square aspect ratio to the point that characters are frenetically and extravagantly toppling over each other, emphasising the claustrophobic conditions the doctor has found himself in. Delbonnel’s lighting effects and visuals are equally striking in their muted colour tones, often distorting shots to create a sense of unease before offering a breathtaking image – a sumptuous close-up of Dychauk is particularly memorable.
Acting is strong across the board, with the relatively unknown Zeiler bringing an intelligence and deranged confidence to the protagonist while bouncing off Adaisinskiy’s strange and deeply disturbing moneylender. Dychauk’s delicate features elucidate Margarete’s stoicism, creating a pure and innocent character straight out of a fairy tale.
With the influence of expressionist painting plainly obvious, Sokurov’s chaotic and theatrical style barely holds this impenetrable beast together. While formally exceptional, Faust rarely gives its audience time to digest the film’s abundance of dialogue and themes, particularly if the viewer is relying on subtitles. Despite being an exceptionally bold interpretation of Goethe’s classic tragedy, Faust is an incredibly difficult and frustrating experience.