TIFF 2011: FAUST Review

     September 14, 2011

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Even if they’ve never read Goethe’s Faust, most people are familiar with the concept of a “Faustian bargain”.  The idea is that you sell your soul to get what you want.  Goethe’s play centers on Doctor Faust who gains infinite knowledge and everything his heart desires in life in exchange for serving Mephistopheles (aka The Devil) in hell for all eternity.  It’s an easy-to-understand premise that lends itself to interesting philosophical discussions and dramatic retellings.  Alexander Sokurov’s new German-language adaptation will be appreciated by about 237 people on the planet.  To enjoy Sokurov’s film, you must inhabit the highly-specific cross-section of Faust scholars, philosophy grad students, and fans of independent Russian cinema.  For everyone else who sees the movie, you will most likely be completely lost as you wade through moribund direction, lifeless surrealism, and characters who speak mostly in philosophical observations on the nature of man.

Sokurov’s film is a loose adaptation of Goethe’s play and the famous bargain doesn’t occur until almost the end of the movie.  The cast of characters is mostly intact, but Sokurov moves around the motives, the structure, and the setting (the film technically takes place 19th century but its surreal edge takes the setting out of any real time or location).  He also removes almost everything that would make a story work.  Sokurov opens with a promising shot of a mirror hanging by a chain suspended in the clouds, but we don’t get distinctive imagery like that again until near the end of the film.  Instead, Sokurov follows up his gorgeous, soaring camera pan through the sky by hitting us in the face with a close-up of a dead, scabby, flaccid penis.  The penis belongs to an unknown corpse who is being eviscerated by Dr. Faust (Johannes Zeiler) and his assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) as Faust tries to find evidence of the soul.

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Faust bemoans his lack of wealth as he ponders his existence, the value of science, and just about every single topic college kids pontificate on when they’re getting high in their dorm rooms late at night.  Desperate for cash, Faust speaks to the Moneylender (Anton Adasinsky) aka Mephistopheles aka Satan.  At first the Moneylender refuses Faust’s offer and then he takes the doctor on a bizarre journey through the streets of Faust’s small town as the two of them have ponderous discussions about life, death religion, the nature of evil, other complex topics, and none of what they’re saying makes much sense.  You can follow where the characters are and the vague outline of what is happening, but the discussion is incomprehensible without a philosophy textbook in one hand, a theology text book in another hand, and a Cliffnotes of Faust in the prosthetic limb you had to build for yourself in order to understand this movie.

I love movies that require literacy but I hate movies that go for intellectual exploration at the expense of any clarity whatsoever.  Watching Faust and struggling to stay awake, I was constantly reminded of my college professors and the obtuse academic readings they assigned.  The papers offered tough, complex ideas but the essays were made more difficult by needlessly opaque syntax and using every $10 word the author could find.  It’s wonderful to have a giant vocabulary.  It’s a crime to misuse it.

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Faust commits a similar crime.  I don’t doubt for a second that Sokurov understands every single moment of his movie.  There’s simply too much detail, derangement, and affectations to think otherwise.  He uses a 4:3 frame with rounded corners.  Why?  I have no idea.  He’ll occasionally skew and distort the image.  Why?  I wish I knew.  I can tell you the major plot beats of Faust but I can’t explain what happens.  It’s an intellectual shortcoming on my part, but I also believe Sokurov could have found a way to make the film slightly more accessible.  It wouldn’t have to be mainstream or even entertaining, but the ideas could at least be presented in a more intellectually engaging manner to those who have don’t live inside academia or Russo-German art-houses.  Instead, Faust is a movie where your eyes glaze over because you can’t tolerate the madness of seeing the words and not understanding what the damn sentence means. (It doesn’t help that the translation is terrible; characters frequently talk over each other so it’s difficult to assign a subtitle to a speaker, and sometimes subtitles will come up when nothing has been said and other times a character will speak and no subtitles comes up; so narrow the aforementioned cross-section to people who can also speak German).

I find it difficult to condemn Faust on the basis that I personally can’t engage with it due to my limited knowledge.  I also applaud Sokurov for making his style and tone known up front so the viewer knows exactly what they’re in for over the next two hours (there was a mass exodus of audience members during the first twenty minutes of the screening I attended).  Sokurov is totally confident in his style, tone, dialogue, and ideas.  But I don’t understand why he bothers to speak if he doesn’t care about being understood.

Rating: C-

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far:

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