Thursday 10 May 2012

Power trip: "Faust"

As blasphemous an idea as it may seem, the none-more-highbrow Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov operates in a similar bubble to the Transformers maven Michael Bay. I grant you that Sokurov's is the quieter, more precious of the two bubbles, yes - Bay has set himself to animating toys, where Sokurov seeks to make paintings come to life; Bay (in his own words) "fucks the frame" with a barrage of edits and other effects, where the most lascivious Sokurov has got up to this point has been in a little light stretching of the canvas. Yet both filmmakers have come, in recent years, to pursue their own aesthetic to unprecedented extremes, at the risk of leaving their audience behind, nonplussed in one case, shellshocked in the other. Each director seemed to have as little interest in the real world - the world beyond high art, in Sokurov's case, beyond low commerce, in Bay's - as the other.

The unexpected parallel struck me not all that far into Sokurov's new screen adaptation of Goethe's Faust, which opens with a complex digital establishing shot - starting on a mirror floating high up in the ionosphere (and which may also be being held up to the audience) before descending into a hellish, computer-generated berg - that is at once familiar from so much contemporary event cinema, and more common to the Odeon than, say, the Curzon Mayfair. Those claims being made for Sokurov as an avatar of the old and the new - a representative of old Russian cultural values who just so happens to be making movies within that nation's new framework of hyperaccelerated corporate capitalism - suddenly seem that much more pressing; the new film is as multidiscipline as they come, and in its elaborate, lavish staging, owes as much to the VFX lab as it does to Sokurov's occasional forays into opera and theatre. It's the work of an artist who, after years of tilling the fields for inspiration, has suddenly discovered the existence of Photoshop.

Faust has been conceived, much as Sokurov's earlier, stuffier Russian Ark, as a single movement - a long walk, unfolding in what feels like continuous time - that takes us from the inner workings of a medieval town to the bleakly existential coast adjacent to it. What this walk describes, in what I gather is a slight deviation from the source, is how penniless mortician Faust (Johannes Zeiler), who once harbored hopes of curing the sick rather than merely hacking up the dead, comes to be seduced by a a diabolical character known only as "the Moneylender" (performance artist Anton Adasinskiy, in the most notable screen bodysuit since the last Big Momma's House) into signing away his soul. You could think of it as a metaphysical Before Sunrise - only here the dawn brings not consummation, but damnation.

After a trilogy of films about men in power - Hitler in 1999's Moloch, Stalin in 2001's Taurus, Hirohito in 2005's The Sun - Sokurov's interest in Faust lies in revealing the processes by which we mortals come to fall under these individuals' spell. Led around by the shuffling, skeletal, in many ways pitiful Moneylender, and shown how this cruel and unfair world actually operates, Faust is offered a kind of protection from the misfortune he now observes befalling others, but he's sleepwalking, hypnotised, towards his own terrible fate. Sokurov is too oblique, too much of a symbolist, to overdo the parallels, but this Faust gains force from the fact this is a Russian, of all directors, retelling this story, and in German, a tongue with its own historical resonance, to boot. The Moneylender is at once Hitler, Stalin, a Pied Piper, any number of modern European leaders up to and possibly including Vladimir Putin, as well as a banker in both the literal and rhyming sense; Adasinskiy also adds a strong visual element of The Simpsons' withered tyrant C. Montgomery Burns into the mix, which sets one to thinking of certain other multimedia martinets misleading the rudderless naive into the outer reaches of purgatory. I'd be surprised to see a glowing review of the film in The Sun on Sunday, for one.

The confluence of influences, reconciling high and low, is the thing: believe it or not, Faust may be as close as Sokurov gets to playing to the gallery. The filmmaker who gave us 1997's Mother and Son was transfixed by the natural world, but in the airiest of ways; the surprise with Faust is just how earthy, fleshy, even carnal it is. The film descends from that heavenly opening to discover a graphic autopsy - strong meat, even for those of us raised on prime-time CSI - in progress; after Faust has welcomed the Moneylender into his home with a draught of passage-clearing hemlock, we're treated to the first ever bout of Aleksandr Sokurov fart jokes, boosted by sound effects apparently lifted from that Jeff Daniels scene in Dumb & Dumber. (That the Moneylender should find himself caught sulphurously short in a church is both a neat subversive touch, and an obvious character tell.) 

As his Hirohito movie, still his strongest, most powerfully affecting work, made abundantly clear, Sokurov is at his most approachable when he gives his characters internal life, and makes of them more than mere figures in his landscapes. These characters are hungry, thirsty, horny; though some amongst them speak with forked tongues, they display recognisable desires (and are thus liable to be manipulated as such); they yearn, breathe (or wheeze) and shit like the rest of us. Faust remains a remarkable landscape to find oneself in, all the same, stumbling as it does across endless spectacle and set-pieces: a subterranean idyll populated by frolicking washerwomen, the Moneylender drawing blood-red torrents of wine from the walls of a pub (where he lures the drinkers into sating their own bloodlusts), a homunculus in a jar that may count as the freakiest movie prop since the baby in Eraserhead or the sentient treeroot in Svankmajer's Little Otik, the (again, in-your-face graphic) visual pun on the phrase "cradlesnatcher" with which the film approaches its finale.

All of this is compounded by Sokurov's penchant for pulling and warping the image, as initiated in Mother and Son, and which here seems peculiarly appropriate for a tale of a man falling under an outside, possibly satanic influence. Faust was shot in the practically square 1:133 aspect ratio, but is being projected (in a way the multiplex, with its automated projection systems, simply couldn't handle) through a 1:185 lens, resulting in a pleasing, round-cornered image with a misty, singular look - Sokurov's own version of Instagram, perhaps, mitigating against the horrors he's filming here. For all its digital wizardry, the film is unlikely to do Transformers numbers; the furore the film caused at last year's Venice Film Festival - where many were appalled it should have won the Golden Lion - suggests Faust won't satisfy every arthouse palate, either. But it struck me as prime Sokurov: dazzling and unfathomable in equal parts, ripe for deconstruction in the pages of Sight & Sound magazine by Professor Ian Christie of Birkbeck College, London, and finally - however much Michael Bay might protest - quite unlike anything else out there in the universe right now, never mind the cinema.

Faust opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.


  1. 'Yet both filmmakers have come, in recent years, to pursue their own aesthetic to unprecedented extremes, at the risk of leaving their audience behind, nonplussed in one case, shellshocked in the other.'

    Expectedly, Sokurov's most widely distributed films are his most straightforward ones, but Sokurov is not entering new territory by pushing an aesthetic to unprecedented extremes. His early apex of his fiction/documentary/found footage period is easily the most deliriously monstrous oddity that I have encountered from him (Skorbnoye beschuvstviye). Faust may be another crest, but it only appears tall to me in relation to his latest films, easily the least stylistically divergent and fluctuating of his career. I'd say it's a return to the explorative stylization of his youth, but certainly not a first breach into this sort of territory. Of course, his versatility is what makes him so unique, and also what bolsters his ability to go balls-out crazy like Faust, so I have no problem with you highlighting it, but give the man his due! He's amazingly ridiculous!

    1. Hi Jean,

      Yes, "Faust" is, indeed, "balls-out crazy" - in a way I wish more cinema would be - and I'm glad we're both roughly on the same page. If I sound in any way guarded or defensive in the early stages of that review, it's partly down to the fact that, for me, much of the early Sokurov you mention remains - like the country the director hails from - unexplored territory; it's also because I'm well aware of the polarising effect the new film has had on several close, respected colleagues. (Perhaps I should be more balls-out in my own writing - but it's the English in me.) At any rate, if it's possible for a film to be both ridiculous *and* amazing, I suspect "Faust" may be it...


  2. 'if it's possible for a film to be both ridiculous *and* amazing'

    Sometimes I am of the mind that it is essential. Well, most of the time. But not all of the time, so I understand your trepidation. Ridiculous and amazing is my brier patch, though.

    Some of Sokurov's early films had a planned DVD release in America by the distributor of Faust, so maybe that will materialize. Whatever the case, I encourage you to seek out Sokurov's early works either through Russian DVDs or as they become available elsewhere, as he's rather astounding. I don't know that someone with such a diverse output will always play directly to your tastes, but you seem to be able to appreciate boldness and he has that in spades - and not of the provocateur type, either, which is so prevalent and tiring. He's wonderfully impossible to pin down.

    1. Yes, I'm certainly keen to see more - alas, I was away when the BFI Southbank here in London ran their complete Sokurov retrospective last year, but - as you say - DVD is making more and more of these specialist titles available all the time. He's one of those filmmakers I will always have a good deal of respect for, even if my love of individual films varies...

  3. There really may only be one film of his that I don't have any 'internal variability' of my love for it, because his films are so atypical and so idiosyncratic that it's difficult to reconcile them in their entirety. But, then, that also points to his versatility, and certainly his obstinance - and it is this quality which makes his films so unique and also incapable of suppressing his versatile whims entirely. He's one of my favorite examples of why 'perfection' is so boring! Sometimes you need to color outside the lines. To always have to take films as a whole is dangerous, as it leads to the type of 'plausible, likeable, and inoffensive' nonsense that the commercial studios hold as dogma. Not all experiments need to be successful, but you will always need experiments to get somewhere new. And that, really, is where my excitement stems from with Sokurov, rewatches not excluded in the least. Sometimes you just have to shake your head, laugh, step back, laugh again, and smile before it all comes together. Or doesn't (yet), which is better than... exposition.