A Free Man
By Ela Bittencourt

Dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia, Leisure Time Features

History, power, and destiny are recurrent themes in the films of Aleksandr Sokurov. At the same time, none of Sokurov’s works in his Tetralogy of Power, which includes Moloch (1999), Taurus (2001), The Sun (2005), and now Faust, is strictly “historical.” If there is history in Moloch, about Adolf Hitler’s stay in the Berchtesgaden fortress, where he is given baths by a svelte Eva Braun; in the exquisitely shot The Sun, which follows Emperor Hirohito’s daily routines inside his bunker before he’s captured by the Americans; or in Taurus, depicting Lenin’s agonizing descent into dementia, it is a distinctly idiosyncratic history. Hirohito’s twitching mouth, Hitler’s hysteria, or Lenin’s raging fits are turned into spectacles suggesting that man’s quest for power is a temporary sublimation: a willful, fleeting gathering of strength beyond human capacity, and a Nietzschean challenge to God and nature. Lenin, Hitler, and Hirohito usurp godly powers, but rather than situate them at their height, Sokurov contemplates their decline. Power in its glorious decay, and the mystery of how dark energies come to be embodied in mortal men whose flesh is feeble and whose characters are ridden with eccentricities, are among Sokurov’s long-standing preoccupations.

Faust, Sokurov’s adaptation of a dramatic poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, marks Sokurov’s leap in the cycle from historically rooted subjects to fiction with fantastical elements. The story of Faust, for whose soul the Devil stages an epic bet against the Heavens, proposing to prove that even the noblest of men is corruptible, has had many previous adaptations, most famously F. W. Murnau’s soaring, expressionist classic Faust (1926). More earthbound than Murnau, Sokurov nevertheless doesn’t shirk from supernatural elements: Faust begins with a shot of an atmosphere full of billowy clouds, with a swinging mirror suspended in ether, and then closes in on a mountainous landscape, before taking us into town and Faust’s laboratory. The setting is in a German province, at a time roughly contemporaneous to Goethe’s: Sokurov adapted only Part I, written in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars. Unlike in the other Tetralogy films, in which Sokurov commented directly on military might, in Faust merely alludes to it, weaving recurring images of young soldiers carousing in the town’s tavern and streets. As he has in the past, Sokurov shoots through panes of glass and uses plastic filters to achieve distortion effects, creating an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere that offsets the period costumes and realist surroundings. He carefully depicts Faust (Johannes Zeiler) as a man torn between profound humanist skepticism and a burgeoning need for spiritual affirmation. When we first see Faust, he has his hand up to the elbow inside a cadaver’s guts. The film’s dark, murky palette and the images of crude medical instruments, as well as the close-ups of the bloodied human entrails, help situate Faust’s anxious need to fathom life beyond its materiality, while a voiceover of Faust’s relentless private thoughts delivers morose reflections on medicine’s failure to bring men happiness.

Sokurov strikes a delicate balance between realism and fantasy. Rather than stage a conjuring of dark powers, he uses Faust’s penury to motivate his meeting with the Devil. Refusing to perform quack surgeries, as his father had, Faust is in dire straits and visits the moneylender, Mauritius (Sokurov’s reinterpretation of Mephistopheles). Anton Adasinsky, who plays Mauritius, wears a blubbery body suit that turns him into a deformed invalid with thick, undulating layers of flesh. Despite his wily wit and cunning, Mauritius is a non-threatening devil. This is partly because, Faust, the dramatic poem and the film, is not a tragedy but a tragicomedy. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Faust is haunted by being, yet both Goethe and Sokurov treat the story’s most serious subjects—human mortality, sin, death and yearning for knowledge and eternity—with a light touch. Faust is at times frustratingly morose in his melancholy, but his interactions with Mauritius are infused with comedy; so much so in Sokurov’s rendition that the two are almost like the Marx Brothers, as they jostle, push, and shove each other. Mauritius’s delight in the flesh is the opposite of Faust’s asceticism. Sokurov extracts hilarity from Mauritius’s sacrilegious digs, not to mention scatological humor: when Faust reprimands Mauritius for wanting to take a shit at the entrance to a church, Mauritius rushes inside it with resounding farts and moans. Sokurov also shows him tongue-kissing a crucifix and trying to make out with a statue of the Madonna.

Sokurov, who has created such striking, painterly portraits of intimacy as Mother and Son, here counters visions of beauty with degradation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bathhouse scene that Sokurov stages as an orgy of the senses. As half-naked laundresses toil at their washboards, Mauritius sheds his clothes and steps into a bathing pool—an image straight out of Hieronymus Bosch, of a body so mangled it elicits the women’s disgust. Sokurov mitigates this sight with pleasure: the women’s white undergarments glow ethereally, bringing out their bodies’ softness and voluptuousness, as if in a Peter Paul Rubens painting. It’s with this ribaldry that Sokurov introduces the film’s theme of carnal passion. The reserved Faust, who chafes at Mauritius’s pranks, peeps under a young washing girl’s skirt, and is overcome by lust. Faust’s pining for Margarete, a young laundress of whom we know little except for her beauty and her family’s poverty, precipitates his downfall, as he is drawn into an intrigue by Mauritius, and accidentally slays Margarete’s brother, Valentin. After Margarete is overcome by despair, Sokurov stages one of the films most imaginative sequences, with Faust fawning over the girl’s still, naked body in a somber chamber, in the presence of her poisoned mother’s corpse and two fantastical goblins. This grim hint of the Underworld is followed by Mauritius and Faust’s escape to the mountains, where Faust is confronted by Valentin’s ghost.

One couldn’t ask for a more Nietzschean antihero than Faust, the intellectual uber-mensch who, his carnal desire awakened, shakes off his guilt and affirms his ego. Faust’s character is so unbound that it is at times confounding. What to make of him as a metaphor for power—or, more importantly, what does Sokurov make of him? As noble as Faust may originally be, and as close as we are to his point of view, he nevertheless comes across as a pale ghost, especially compared to the ludicrous but lively Mauritius. As in the poem, wicked ingenuity, biting wit, and action here belong to the devil, while brooding and moping are left to the humans. This doesn’t make Faust a very compelling character, and the film meanders at times, jumping from one episodic encounter to another. In at least one instance, such as when Faust and Mauritius take a carriage ride with a man who blathers on about his coat, Sokurov seems to indulge in private humor. “What, is he mad?” Faust inquires about the stranger, to which Mauritius answers, “No, he’s Russian.” Whether or not this is really meant as a dig at his fellow countrymen—in a scene that does little to advance either plot or our understanding of Faust’s motifs—the film’s more obscure references and characters dissipate the imaginatively drawn tensions between hapless Faust and villainous Mauritius.

Most opaque is the film’s finale, in which Faust escapes from Valentin’s ghost, with Mauritius’s help, only to subsequently crush the devil under a pile of stones. Liberated, Faust takes off into the mountains; he’s seemingly in control of the landscape, having silenced an erupting geyser, yet the iciness that surrounds him doesn’t bode well for his future. On one hand, the unfettered Faust is an image of man overcoming the confines of narrowly defined morality. On the other, he is a vision of moral impunity, and possibly Sokurov is being most deliberately Nietzschean by leaving the line between the two so blurred. Yet Faust, as a dramatic character, often fails to satisfy, for while Goethe’s doctor gives up his soul to pierce the world’s inner mysteries and become all-knowing, and Murnau’s Faust forsakes his soul first to save his fellow men from the plague before succumbing to temptation, Sokurov’s Faust simply gives up his respectability and soul to save a pretty girl. Margarete might be the ultimate test of his powers, but even the money that Faust offers her comes from Mauritius’s coffers. Perhaps Faust, having shed his scruples for Margarete, discovers he has little use for them; yet the amorous affair is too fleeting to connect love to Faust’s other aspirations. Faust doesn’t deliver the same level of psychological insight as Taurus, in which Sokurov managed to have the relationship between Lenin and his wife teeter between easy-going companionship and egotistical tyranny.

Goethe’s Faust is epic; Sokurov’s has a distinctly human scale, yet he flattens the tale’s meaning, which is not helped with an unwieldy conclusion: Faust is released from Mauritius’s grip, as he realizes that he is beholden neither to the living nor the dead. It’s an exuberant ending that is nevertheless tempered if we consider this film in relation to the earlier entries in the Tetralogy. Perhaps what all this means, in the end, is that a man’s rise to power has the ability to astound and bewilder, whereas power seized can’t help but turn out a bitter disappointment. Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito are isolated wretches, hysterically sensitive to any sign of weakness—Faust is so smitten with his freshly found freedom, and the new heights he has scaled, that he hasn’t yet glimpsed the abyss.