Today: July 12, 2024


Back in 2002, Russian film director Alexandr Sokurov embarked on an ambitious project to retell the entirety of Russian history using a single continuous shot.

Back in 2002, Russian film director
Alexandr Sokurov embarked on an
ambitious project to retell the entirety of Russian history using a single
continuous shot.
The resulting film (named Russian
) remains an astonishing technical achievement but its lack of emotional
resonance and intellectual firepower helped to cement Sokurov’s reputation as a
director who is more respected than loved. Sokurov’s Faust is the last film in a loose tetralogy of films exploring the
concept of power and, like many of Sokurov’s other films, it is a technical
marvel with very little to say.

Based on the same German legend as
the legendary 1927 film by F.W. Murnau, Sokurov’s Faust tells of a
scholar who knows the truth of everything and the value of nothing. The film
opens on a scene of Faust (Johannes Zeiler)
cutting up a dead body while rubbishing the idea that said body might contain a
soul. From there we move to scenes of Faust rubbishing the idea of either
imparting his wisdom to others or using it to help the sick and needy. Adrift
on a sea of apathy, Faust eventually washes up at the door of a festering moneylender
(Anton Adasinsky) who begins
following him around after making it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t give a
penny for any of Faust’s belongings.

As Faust wanders the cramped
streets of a German town, the moneylender begins peppering him with questions
and testing his resolve in an effort to uncover something the scholar actually
values. After holiness, knowledge and morality all fail to engage the scholar’s
interest, the moneylender engineers a situation in which Faust murders a
soldier and promptly falls in love with the soldier’s sister (Isolda Dychauk). Suddenly aware of how
lonely his existence has become and spurred on by the moneylender’s assurances
that the soldier’s sister is motivated entirely by lust, the scholar signs over
his soul in return for a night of pleasure. However, once the moment of
pleasure passes, Faust’s lack on interest in anything reasserts itself and the
moneylender suddenly ceases to be of interest.

Sokurov’s film is nothing short of
a visual triumph. Shot amidst narrow streets using a very narrow aspect ratio,
Sokurov fills the screen with extras to the point where the film’s main
characters struggle to be seen and heard. Hemmed in on all sides by people and
buildings, Sokurov’s Faust withdraws into a world of ideas only to be shocked
and horrified by his resulting distance from human concerns. The
self-destructive nature of Faust’s psychological exile is made all the more
clear through a series of allusions to great works of art which, despite their
considerable beauty, are entirely lost on the self-absorbed Faust.

The film’s titles make it quite
explicit that Faust is intended as a rejoinder to Sokurov’s three films about
the dictators of World War II. However, as a portrait of power, this film is
more than a little overwrought. As in Moloch,
Taurus and The Sun, Sokurov brings considerable technical expertise to the
table and yet, despite all the care and attention lavished on the film’s look
and feel, the insights generated into Faust’s character and motivations remain
extremely limited. Christopher Marlowe
made his Faust omnipotent only for him to waste his powers on freaking out the
Pope. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s
Faust used his power to get laid only to later redeem himself by constantly
striving for improvement and forgiveness. Sokurov’s Faust uses his power to
seduce a woman and then flees across an ice field when the devil attempts to
claim his soul. Naturally, it would be somewhat unfair to compare Sokurov’s
work with that of Marlowe and Goethe but the problem is not so much that
Sokurov’s vision fails to compete but rather that it fails to say very much at
all. Much like Russian Ark and the three previous films in the tetralogy of
power, Faust is an elegant mute… a beautiful imbecile whose joys are strictly
technical and emotionally barren.

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