out of Five
Running time: 139
A delirious, meandering adaptation of the Faust legend from Russian director Alexander Sokurov with a scene-stealing turn from performance artist Anton Adasinsky as Mephistopheles.
What’s it all about?
Russian auteur Aleksander Sokurov is best known for his filmic time travel tour of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Palace, Russian Ark, which was executed in just one take. His latest project is “a tetralogy of power” – a series of films that has so far explored the lives of real tyrants such as Hitler, Hirohito and Lenin.
Now Sokurov turns to power-hungry Faust (played by Johannes Zeiler), imagining him as an impoverished scientist in 18th century Germany, eager for knowledge of the world around him. His Mephistopheles is the money lender Muller (Anton Adasinsky), a bizarre grotesque of a man who delights in leading Faust astray. During a drunken brawl, Faust kills the young solider Valentin, only to fall in love with his sister Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) at Valentin’s funeral. Desperate to seduce her, he signs his soul away to Muller.
Sokurov has a knack of creating singular, highly visual worlds and he does so right from the start, catapulting the audience straight into a gruesome dissection scene. The grotesque imagery that follows (in particular the devilish Muller’s genitalia which are in the most unusual of places) and the film’s grimy urban setting call to mind Hieronymus Bosch's sadistic dystopias. The camera swirls around the action, creating a delirious magical feel, while the film’s soundtrack is an impressive palimpsest of German medieval music, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Anton Adasinsky’s extraordinary performance as moneylender Muller never fails to captivate either.
This is a film that has divided critics since it won the Golden Lion at Venice last year. For some it’s an ambitious, otherworldly take on the Faust legend, but for others it’s a grueling, narratively-challenged, two hour 20 minute slog. Certainly there are a lot of scenes of Faust and Muller simply wandering the streets, and what largely motivates both characters remains oblique throughout. However, any dawdling, demanding moments are more than compensated for by the film’s extraordinary landscapes and atmosphere.
Goethe fans and Faust purists may not be happy with Sokurov’s deviations from the legend, while others may scratch their heads at this ponderous adaptation. But if you like your cinema absurd and grotesque, Sokurov’s Faust won’t disappoint.