Faust, Proline Film, 2011
by Justin E. H. Smith
I’ve appreciated Aleksandr Sokurov since the 1990s, but it was, I think, with his 2003 Father and Son that he first began to seem genuinely puzzling to me. This film, not at all Turgenevian, portrayed two men apparently of the same age, posing in various intimate positions with one another, always in the middle of meticulously composed and painterly scenes (Caspar David Friedrich is cited most often in connection with Sokurov). At the time the Russian director railed against the dirty-mindedness of the decadent Western reporters who dared to suggest that there was anything going on in this film other than what the title implies (more recently he has actively supported an LGBT film festival in Moscow, which makes me wonder whether he has not, perhaps, at least re-thought the spirit of the questions set to him some years earlier). So from at least that point Sokurov had a reputation for being difficult, for making films that do not exactly seem to be about what they are supposed to be about.
Next he impressed me with The Sun, one in a tetralogy of films attempting an extremely personal and apolitical portrait of a world leader, in this case of Emperor Hirohito in the final days of World War II, childishly attempting to go about his marine-biological experiments as usual. The final installment in the tetralogy (the two others were devoted to Lenin and Hitler respectively) is a sort of version of Goethe’s Faust. It took me a while to figure out what this character was doing alongside some of the 20th-century’s most notorious despots and spillers of blood, until it dawned on me that the ‘world leader’ in question here is not Faust, but Satan. Anton Adasinskii, the distinguished founder of the Moscow theater company DEREVO, offers the most convincing dramatic depiction of the devil I think I’ve ever seen, and thoroughly upstages the titular hero. The devil is a money-lender; he drinks poison, takes a shit in a church, and when he removes his clothes to bathe with some maidens (who are inexplicably not horrified), the naked body he reveals is indescribably grotesque.
The story is really ‘frei nach Goethe’, as is promised in the opening credits, since it is not for knowledge that Faust sells his soul, but for a bit of money, some food to eat, and love of a girl. A love interest would of course be a disappointing convention in almost any other film, but with Sokurov it does not make the material less challenging. The girl’s naked, living body, in some of the final scenes of the film (just prior to the final shots at the Icelandic geyser, a spot Goethe himself knew to be charged with black-magical lore), up close, in shots that puritan raters would call ‘graphic’, finally muffle the memory of the opening shot of the film: the penis of a cadaver undergoing autopsy at the hands of Goethe and his imbecile assistant Wagner, who wonders where in all the blood and guts the soul could be hiding. This cadaver; the devil’s naked body; the homunculus Wagner has made out of a hyena liver and some essential oils, and keeps in a glass vial until he accidentally smashes it on a rock; and, finally, the brief flashes of actual erotic nakedness we get with Margarete (notwithstanding the ghouls that are peeking in through the open windows even then): these are the four moments that to my mind frame this aggressively corporeal film.
The film is free with Goethe, but it understands and conveys something Goethe understood, and that has been largely lost since then: that on a certain understanding medicine, astronomy, theology, in a word, what the Germans once understood by Wissenschaft, are all part of the same project, and that to undertake this project is to hover on the brink of evil. It’s surely good that we don’t think about science like this anymore, but it is also surely good that there are artists capable of recapturing the lost spirit in which chemical treatises and grimoires were shelved not too far from one another, and in which it was somewhat easier to put words to the sense (which I for one have not entirely lost) that a life of inquiry is a life of profound, if not damning, moral compromise.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website