Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sokurov's Faust

It seems that Alexander Sokurov had to appeal to the highest authority in Russia to get the financial support he needed to complete his final installment in his great "Power" tetralogy.  Vladimir Putin would seem an unlikely patron for Sokurov, who has long bucked authority ever since completing his studies at VGIK in 1979.  But, after an hour's discussion at Putin's country retreat, Sokurov had his backer.  Sokurov claims Putin was drawn more to the subject matter of the movie than to him, one can't help but think that Putin saw in Sokurov the international recognition he brought to cinema.  After all, Putin is more a power player than an auteur.

Whatever the case, we should all be thankful Sokurov got the opportunity to complete this marvelous film, which takes a whole new look at the Faustian bargain, seeing it more as a power game than a question of spirituality.  This might put off some Faust fans, but I think most will be mesmerized by the way in which Sokurov explores his subject, portraying Faust not as some Romantic but rather as an exceedingly rational man obsessed with knowledge, and determined to understand the underpinning of the universal order.

The film opens with Faust, as played by Johannes Zeiler, opening up the body of a man in search of his soul.  An amusing dialog takes place between Faust and his assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) as to where the soul might be located.  A disgruntled Faust has the dissected body carted away and goes to his father for a handout to keep him going, but his father shuns him, regarding his son's experiments as fruitless.

The devil is less a Mephistopheles than a devilish little pawnbroker, played to great effect by Anton Adasinsky, who leads the good Dr. Faust around a labyrinthine Medieval village, tempting him with Margarete, played by the radiant Isolde Dychauk, and eventually getting the doctor to "autograph" a book for him in blood for a taste of the sweet Margarete.

There is virtually constant movement in the film, as in Russian Ark.  Sokurov gives the viewer little rest visually or in following the cascading subtitles, as he presents the dialog like a stream of consciousness, pulling from the lines of the play, inserting his own subtexts and even providing an amusing cameo by Chichikov and his manservant Selifan on the road from Russia.  There are many subtle role reversals as you wonder who is leading who in this existential quest.

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