Aleksandr Sokurov set himself an ambitious task in choosing to rework Goethe’s timeless journey of the human soul, FAUST – the fourth and final volume in his ‘tetralogy of power’. Having contemplated Lenin, Hitler and Hirohito in previous works, and with numerous evocations of this tale already available, part of Sokurov’s challenge lay in remaining faithful to both his own visions and those of Goethe. Thus, Sokurov traces the original story with relative loyalty, yet includes flashes of true individuality and showmanship which distinguish his from any previous version.
The film unfolds around the story of Faust (Johannes Zeiler), a scholar wrapped up in doubtful philosophy and absolute poverty. Continuously tempted by the unrelentingly grotesque embodiment of Mephistopheles, the Moneylender (Anton Adasinsksy), Faust eventually sells his soul to the devil in order to sleep with the exceptionally beautiful Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), and his subsequent demise is then documented.
… the visual feast that Sokurov provides counterbalances any severe sense of aimlessness.
The epic length of Sokurov’s FAUST provides scope for extensive, breath-taking panoramic scenes, yet also steers the film perilously towards being unnecessarily meandering. In his more evocative moments, however, the visual feast that Sokurov provides counterbalances any severe sense of aimlessness. Sharper scenes, such as the opening dissection, further punctuate the slightly ponderous plot, with the more graphic scenes being amongst the most poignant.
In choosing not to define a period for his screenplay, and in drenching the backdrops with earthly hues, Sokurov creates an intriguing, mystical world which is both disparate from our own yet entirely comprehensible. This balance between the familiar and far-removed is maintained through the occasional addition of surreal details, such as a view through a telescope to a monkey on the moon. It is peculiarities such as this which, although perhaps a little self-indulgent, keep the narrative afloat and distinct from previous incarnations of this tale.
FAUST thrives through its oneiric pace and setting, although perhaps fails to address fully the profound philosophical questions that its characters skirt around. Whether Sokurov’s rendition of Goethe’s work stands out for its impact of message is questionable; whether it will long remain in the public conscious as a feat of cinematic prowess is entirely plausible.