Chinese 1, 11/4/2011, 9:30 PM
Chinese 6, 11/6/2011, 12:15 PM
By Paul T. Bradley
No one would dare call Alexander Sokurov breezy and lighthearted and no one would expect to walk away from one of his films chipper and content. Instead, one expects to shuffle away ponderous and spellbound—which is what makes FAUST such a perfect Sokurov film. The intellectually faint of heart need proceed no further.
Faust serves as an epilogue to Sokurov’s historical trilogy concerning corrupt leaders: Hitler in MOLOCH (1999), Vladimir Lenin in TAURUS (2001), and Japanese emperor Hirohito in THE SUN (2005).
This film loosely follows the classic German myth’s framework: a dispirited doctor is tempted by a misshapen and somewhat mystical charmer into giving away his soul to satisfy his lusts and his curiosity. Beyond the basics, Marlowe, Mann, and Goethe fanboys will find little foothold to their favorite, earlier interpretations. Sokurov, instead, fills in between the lines of this classic framework with a mesmerizing illumination of the liminal space between Russian and western European philosophy. He attempts an epic synthesis of Russian thought through the German lens that once influenced it so thoroughly.
As a brief introduction—Russia has benefited (or perhaps suffered) from a surplus of philosophy. In czarist and communist Russia it was philosophy that served as the ultimate measure of truth and the foundation of all political and economic change. For the Russia of most present-day adults, loyalty to the teachings of Marx’s dialectical materialism was the prerequisite of civic loyalty and professional success. No worker, farmer, scientist, politician—or even artists and writers—could succeed in their respective fields without specific philosophical preparation, be it through Stalin, or the Germans that underpinned that thinking—Marx, Kant and Hegel.
Further to that, philosophical ideas in Russia rarely matured into proportionate, autonomous systems, because it was the license of the State to carry them out and elaborate them in a standard, systematic way. Russian thinkers digested these systems into a stream of unpredictable, impulsive, existential thinking which attempted to go beyond the systems—to undermine them rather than unite them. Since the official state philosophy functioned as a mechanism of power, it was the task of non-official philosophy to advance anti-totalitarian modes of thinking, deconstructing the principles of standardization.
So in that sense, Sokurov is advancing a mature rejection of philosophical authority at every turn in FAUST. This Mephistopheles can easily consume his cup of hemlock and survive, perhaps the grandest middle finger to Plato’s foundations of totalitarian philosophy. While it is indeed a meditation on the gaps of reason in human power, it is not merely a philosophical film.
Sokurov has the most sublime respect for visual verisimilitude in contemporary film—he does not strive for a realist or stylized visual style, but a visual style that faithfully captures the era in which a story is set. For example, in FAUST, he shows the characters and events as their contemporaries would have shown them, perhaps even through a black-mirrored Claude glass, evening-out the harsh separation of tones. The film has the washed and dark look of a Northern European mannerist—or perhaps a 19th century Slav like Jan Matejko.
As a master of images, Sokurov is an unflinching grotesque. There are a myriad of visual puns and gruesome treats. These are greasy fingers grabbing salty meats, probing hands tearing apart corpses, and bloody homunculi gasping for their last breaths. Here there are puerile delights and defecation is best done in desecration rather than in mere bodily function—why waste an opportunity to befoul something precious like a church?
All told, FAUST is equal parts painterly revivalism, a somewhat dour philosophical meditation, and rampant vulgar fun. This film may be life-changing in the sense that it cinematically scratches a philosophical cut into the roof of your mouth…a cut that might heal if you weren’t so compelled to keep poking it with your tongue. You won’t leave happy, you won’t leave sad—you will leave pensive and partially unhinged—but, y’know…in a good way.
Paul T. Bradley is a freelance writer, cinefile and former ditch-digger. He is a regular contributor to LA Weekly’s arts section, where he covers haute nerdery, semi-refined vulgarity and hastily-scrawled, pro-Los Angeles jingoism. He reluctantly tweets from @paultbradley.