Wanderers Before God: Alexander Sokurov’s Faust

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Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (Casper David Friedrich, Oil on Canvas, 1818)

Somewhere between a Rabelaisian paean to Earthly pleasures, complete with the drunken waltz of the camera, and a serious investigation to the failure of human desire for knowledge, Alexander Sokurov’s Faust is quite unlike any other cinematic event I’ve encountered this year. The film’s loose adaptation of Goethe’s masterwork sees no difference between its highly aspirations and its low humor—an opening CGI shot that sets up an epic mythology ends with a blurry shot of a flaccid (and dead) penis of a cadaver being examined for the progress of human knowledge. That failure of knowledge is key for Herr Doktor, a man who has learned all he knows about the stars, only to be disappointed that he finds no pleasure in this life—that perhaps the science he defines his life brings him no pleasure (he has much to learn by the woman visiting his gynecologist father, her checkup an excuse for the orgasm the examination will produce). Even a monkey on a moon, a bizarre and lovely image, adds no interest to him. This man is destined to his meeting his Mephistopheles (Anton Adasinsky, the performance of the year), a drunken and ghastly creature who will take him through the maze of life’s lowly pleasures (a bath of virgins, a drunken pub, a mockery of a funeral), all in the hopes to make him reveal some desire worth trading his soul. Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Faust meanders without implicit meaning or classical rhythms, forcing the viewer to accept his venture of the physical into something metaphysical, the camera spinning around like a waltz (two steps forward, one step back) in an attempt to make Faust find something within the moral schema he still submits to. Sokurov’s demented view of humanity is so decidedly strange (the Devil is not just evil; he’s also a bad speller) that it’s easy to dismiss his portrayal of this “important” work as the sign of a filmmaker who can’t tell good from bad, but even his obsession with bowel humor is sublimated into the great philosophical search, all implemented through the garish colors of Bruno Donbonnel’s boldly inventive visual palette (at once seductive and repulsive). The film’s most beautiful moments—a golden vision of his beauty, and the two’s romantic drift into a river—are also the most tragic.

What makes Sokurov’s cinema so exciting is that he’s an original, not obsessed with the type of references to his elders that defines too much of contemporaries. While certainly owing debt to Tarkovsky, his most apparent references are outside (that cinema became his art form of choice, despite his mastery of it, seems coincidental). He seems more indebted to someone like De Tocqueville’s inquiring sociological eye, Dickens’s melodramatic realism, Dostoevsky’s conversion narratives, and certainly Chekov’s absurdism. Even Quixote’s windmill makes an appearance, another man chasing dreams of greatness only to be overcome by them. Visually, he owes more to painting, finding psychological discovery within what could only be called moving still lifes. In one interview he claims he and his cinematographer starred at Freidrich’s The Monk By The Sea to prepare for his 1996 film, Mother and Son. Faust‘s most obvious painterly references are certainly Rembrandt (the film’s opening scene perhaps a reference to The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp) through his obsession with displaying faces and bodies in their full grotesque palette, but finding visual spectacle in the negative space There are elements of Bruegel in his parade through the village, a Botticelli in the Venus like portraiture of Margarete, and an ending out of Freidrich’sWanderer Above the Sea of Fog, except Sukurov’s Faust refuses the awe of the event he sees, actively denying God before him. The devil has failed, trapped under a pile of rocks, and the man wanders into the icy darkness. A fool’s errand, achieving knowledge! The film’s billing as the final part in the director’s “Power Tetralogy,” which ends the film, offers both a cementing of teleology of the root of the 20thcentury, but perhaps a sly nod toward philistinism (“So thats what he meant by it all!” you can imagine the “cultured” old woman murmuring to her husband). But Faust is an infinitely complex film toward a search to the failure of human nature’s desire for knowledge that does not define great men, but all of us. “Good does not exist, but evil does,” a character warns the Herr Doktor. Such trifles toward the search to comprehending the heavens within the language below it can only lead us to our useless search through the desert. Knowledge is nothing without the faith to believe it.

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