Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I’m not a TIFF Vet like my buddies John & Chris but at this point I know enough to know that around the end of day 4/beginning of day 5 of the festival all the movies start to meld together and you feel like you’re watching one mediocre day-long movie. Faust was the last memorable film that I saw at the festival in 2011 before everything started to get all jumbled (and almost anything is enjoyable after just sitting through Rampart).
Apparently winning best picture at a major festival like Venice doesn't always guarantee that a film will get a descent run in theaters (art house theaters, but still…). Such as the case with Alexander Sokurov's latest; Faust - another retelling/reworking of the famous tale of Faust's quest/struggle to find ultimate enlightenment and the deal he makes with Mephistopheles. To my knowledge this hasn't been released yet outside of festivals & special screenings. Maybe I’m being a bit naïve but I assumed that Sokurov’s recent stuff like Russian Ark (a feature length film shot in one take) & his “power trilogy” (Moloch, Taurus & The Son) had solidified his spot in the art house cinemas but I guess not. In my opinion Sokurov has reached “master auteur” status (if you refer to 5 Questions with Guy Maddin, he considers Sokurov to be the best active filmmaker around) and Faust felt kinda special to me as this was the FIRST film of his I saw on the big screen. This version of Faust isn't your typical German fairytale. Even though this made my top 10 in 2011 it's still not the easiest thing to sit through. This Faust is a world full of deformed characters (in this version, Mephistopheles reveals that his penis is located on the back of his gross pear/squash-shaped body. ...yeah), the creepiest homunculus of ALL the Faust films and dissected bodies (in one of the film's earliest scenes we see Faust inspecting the inside of a body he's just cut open in order to find where the "soul" is). This almost doesn't feel like an adaptation. It’s as if Sokurov brought Faust, Mephistopheles, Gretchen and all the other characters into HIS dreamy world of dense beauty & intentionally slightly un-synced audio where everything feels just a
In 2011 much was made of Terrence Malick's Tree Of Life and I couldn't help but think that if there was a place in theaters for that - then why not Faust? Both films have a similar disorienting vibe, deal with vague subjects & issues like; science (on some level) & the origin of life and both films have what many believe to be hidden messages. With Tree Of Life it was the message of Christianity, religion & evangelism whereas with Faust it was apparently a hidden message about Russia’s integration with the rest of Europe (honestly…I don’t see it, but that’s what people are saying).
While Faust shares a strange & unexpected connection with the cinema of Terrence Malick in terms of content, it also shares a connection with Post Tenebras Lux in terms of style & execution. Faust & Post Tenebras Lux, which are both directly inspired by the cinema of Tarkovsky (as well as psychotropic drugs) are two of the few recent works that come the closest to conveying the feel of an actual dream on the big screen.

If I had to describe Faust in one word it would be; dense – the kind of film that you make confused facial expressions at while watching it. On one hand, Faust is a beautiful & rich piece of art that almost feels like a moving painting. The costumes & set designs are excellent...
an appearance from Fassbinder regular; Hanna Schygulla
But on the other hand, Faust is dizzying & tough to watch in some parts (and not just the scenes of grotesque deformed bodies or the guts & organs we see in the beginning). It’s almost like watching an actual headache in the form of a movie (I realize the point of these write-ups are to shed a positive light on these mostly unseen films and I may have just turned you all off by that last statement, but it’s true). It’s a bit difficult to describe, but the ambiance of Faust was very very “thick” & cloudy in both the “feel” and the actual look. The beautiful Gothic-looking images & stills you may find on the Internet paint one picture but the actual moving images tell another story (look at the trailer at the bottom of the review). Sokurov used some kind of filter or special setting on the lens of the camera to give the film an intentionally blurry/cloudy perspective (like that feeling when you first wake up in the morning and haven’t rubbed your eyes yet). This is a challenging film to say the least. Not everyone is gonna wanna sit through something like this for OVER two hours (Faust clocks in at 134 minutes). Alexander Sokurov, who is an amazingly talented director with a unique style, is an acquired taste. Faust is a film that you have to ease in to and it should NOT be anyone’s introduction to his work (no matter how good it is). I genuinely found myself mumbling “…what the fuck?” under my breath more than once while watching this. Faust sometimes seems intentionally alienating. For such a dense, disorienting & trippy piece of work, it didn’t need to be as long as it was. I honestly can’t be mad at anyone if they don’t like this or need more than one sitting to finish it. Depending on the film you have to be kind of a trooper in order to make it all the way through some of Sokurov’s work and Faust REALLY weeds out the true fans (there were quite a few walkouts throughout the screening I attended).
But the beauty of the lead actress; Isolda Dychauk (who plays Gretchen) counters all the roughness & ugliness. Whenever Faust starts to become too much & unbearable her presence (just her face alone) calms the nerves and eases the anxiety that this film may bring on.

Faust might be the oldest and most adapted story in cinema (1926-2011). Every director that’s tackled it has told it in their own unique style. I'd been sitting on an unfinished proper length write-up of Sokurov's Faust for quite some time. Before finishing it off I sought out the original Murnau version and re-watched the Jan Svankmajer version last year at The Museum Of The Moving Image. Apparently there's an adaptation of Faust directed by Brian Yuzna (of Society fame) I still have yet to see. The Mephistopheles character has taken many different forms over the years...
Murnau (1926)
Gorski (1960)
Svankmajer (1994)
Sokurov (2011)
What is it about the story of Faust that has directors of almost every era since the silent era want to adapt this? I can still think of a few modern filmmakers that I'd personally like to see adapt this and put their own twist on it (Guy Maddin, Manuel De Oliviero & Catherine Breillat to name a few)

An interesting fact I recently learned about Faust is that it’s actually meant to be part of his “power trilogy" (which makes it a tetralogy I guess) but I honestly don’t see this fairy tale of a film fitting in with his biopics on Hitler (Moloch), Lenin (Taurus) & Hirohito (The Sun). Yes, Faust deals with similar themes & elements as Sokurov’s aforementioned works, like power & and the misuse of it, but Faust is a standalone work in his filmography. Faust pretty much became a misunderstood masterpiece before it even left the festival circuit. It has all the characteristics – a work of art to some and a piece of crap to others, frustrating to sit through yet rewarding at the same time and some attempt at originality.


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