Monday, May 07, 2012

128. Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s German film “Faust” (2011): Reflecting on the Faust syndrome in our lives

Alexander Sokurov’s Faust is a complex film. It is also an amazing film dealing with the good and the evil in each of us. There are sections of the film that can be revolting to a viewer and there are others that offer spectacular beauty. This inherent Janus face of this movie is probably one reason that it will not fulfil every cineaste’s concept of ideal cinema. The film, when viewed in its totality and analyzed for both its content and its style, is both powerful and rewarding. While handing over the Golden Lion, it is no surprise that the US film director Darren Aronofsky and Chairman of the Venice Film Festival 2011 Jury said of the film FaustThere are films that change you forever and this is one of them.”

Sokurov’s Faust can be a rich experience for a patient viewer who would try to see the film more than once to glimpse the lodes of gold in the cinematic mine that the film offers. Aronofsky and the jury that he headed at the Venice Festival could obviously evaluate the dense value of the film in its script, in its actors’ performances, in its cinematography, and in its music.

Sokurov’s Faust is an example of cinema using literature as a base to develop a movie that presents a new twist to the accepted tale(s). Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev did it with King Lear, Andrei Tarkovsky did it with Stanslaw Lem’s Solaris, and now Sokurov (who was Tarkovsky’s protégé and Sokurov who decided to document Soviet director Kozintsev’s flat on film) has followed in their footsteps with his Faust, amalgamating two literary works, one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and another of Thomas Mann and contributing his own and co-scriptwriterYuri Arabov’s value additions to the product.

For this critic, Sokurov’s Faust and Malick’s The Tree of Life were the finest works of cinema made in 2011, the former winning the top honour at the Venice Film Festival and the latter the top honour at Cannes Film Festival. Both films deal with theology. Both films showcase the respective director’s ability to create breathtaking visuals and soundtracks. Both films have and will continue to have their equal share of fans and detractors. While The Tree of Life was a cinematic work of stunning beauty dealing with elements physical and metaphysical that are good and thus encouraging the viewers to open their mind’s eye to beautiful aspects of life, Faust presents, in contrast, an unusual tale relating to both the good and the evil in life. Initially Sokurov’s Faust wallows in sequences of dark thoughts, the ugly and the grotesque to grapple with equally fascinating ruminations on philosophy, sociology and politics, while in the later parts the film takes you into a strange landscape, beautiful and unreal, devoid of habitation.

To appreciate Sokurov’s Faust, it vastly helps if the viewer is familiar, or at least acquainted with the subject dealt in the film. It is notable to recall Sokurov’s statement given to critic Steve Rose of The Guardian newspaper:  "I'm a very literary person, not so much a cinematographic person. I don't really like cinema very much." It is an unusual statement for a filmmaker to make. Yet, it makes sense if you are familiar with the later cinematic works of Kozintsev and, in particular, Sokurov’s film Faust. Three independent and great literary works deal with the backbone of Sokurov’s movie Faust. Both Kozintsev and Sokurov devoured the literary masterpieces and presented those works as cinema adding to the existing value with additional sequences, visuals, and music that make these movies much more valuable for the enquiring mind than the original literary idea. Sokurov creates this magic with the aid of his trusted screenplay writer Yuri Arabov, with whom he has collaborated on most of his major cinematic works.

The first of the three connected literary works is a play The Tragical History of Dr Faustus written by Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century. This play was performed on stage last century by actor Richard Burton and luckily for those of us who care, the performance was transformed into a movie Doctor Faustus (1967), directed by Richard Burton and Nevil Coghill. That theatrical performance will remain a treat for anyone who loves good theatre. (This critic, while a college student, saw that film in 1972 in a near empty commercial movie hall in Thyagaraja Nagar, Chennai, India.) It was the only work that Burton ever directed but he was able to capture and distil the finest elements of good theatre with visual finesse and magical eloquence on film for posterity. Marlowe’s Faustus was a German scholar in Wittenburg, who having learnt everything in conventional academia yearns for more, especially the dark arts, and signs a pact with the devil (Mephistopheles) to sell his soul if he gets knowledge beyond conventional academics, power over knights and courtiers of Charles V, and the carnal pleasures resulting from the company of Helen of Troy (Elizabeth Taylor plays the cameo part in the film) for a period of 24 years. Marlowe’s Faustus later repents that he will be deprived of the pleasures of heaven but the devil wins the philosophical joust at the end.

The second literary version comes from the land of Dr Faustus: Germany. This is Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust written in the early 19th century for the stage in two parts. The play is widely accepted as one of the finest works in German literature. In Goethe’s version, the play begins as a wager between God and the Devil in heaven that God’s favourite human Faust, who is learning everything that is known to humans, can be drawn away from his god-fearing lifestyle. In the first part of the play, the scene shifts to terra firma and Faust signs with a drop of his own blood a contract with Mephistopheles, that Mephistopheles will serve Faust on earth while Faust will serve Mephistopheles in Hell after death. Faust gets the help of Mephistopheles to woo and impregnate his love Gretchen, who in turn kills her mother to be with Faust and later her illegitimate child from her intimacy with Faust. Later imprisoned for the killings but refusing to escape at the behest of Faust, Goethe produced two endings of the first part of the play. Literature students will recall the “Urfaust,” the first version, where in the final scene in Heaven, Gretchen is condemned. In the later version of the play, Goethe revised the ending of the first part of his play to cries from Heaven that Gretchen would be saved. The second part of Goethe’s play is set, not on earth, but in the “macrocosmos” where Faust wins over evil even though he had lost the race initially in Part One and goes to heaven. When German director F.W. Marnau made his visually riveting silent movie Faust (1926), he amalgamated Goethe’s work with Marlowe’s idea of a 24-year bargain with the Devil into a movie built around a 24-hour bargain instead.

Then there is the third literary version of the tale, also from Germany—this time, not as a play but as a novel, by the Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann. Mann’s Doktor Faustus was written a century later than Goethe’s work, in 1943-47 to be more precise. In this work, the title refers to Faustus/Faust, the main Faustian character is called Adrian Leverkuehn, a musical composer. A complex character Leverkuehn intentionally contracts syphilis by having sex with Esmeralda (rough equivalent of Marlowe’s Helen of Troy and Goethe’s Gretchen/Margarethe/Marguerite) so that he would go mad and through madness create better music. When he goes mad, Leverkuehn is able to interact with Mephistopheles who acknowledges Leverkuehn’s madness but cautions Leverkuehn that he Mephistopheles exists despite his madness. This version of the Faust lore deals with parallels in politics (it was written by Mann in exile, much after he won the Nobel prize, while Germany was under Hitler) and the creative process of artistes involving spiritual fall and physical degradation to attain fame.

Now Alexander Sokurov’s Faust is an amalgamation of Goethe’s and Mann’s writings. This is obvious because it is stated in the credits of the film. What is not stated and has to be distinguished by the knowledgeable viewers is how Sokurov and his trusted screenplay writer Yuri Arabov have transformed Goethe’s and Mann’s writing further just as Kozintsev and Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak reworked Shakespeare’s King Lear. For Goethe, Faust was essentially a scientist who craves for knowledge and power signs a pact with the Devil to gain these “unattainable limits.” For Mann, Leverkuehn/Faust was a man who wilfully contracts syphilis to be become mad and thus more creative, more respected and adored, and thus more powerful. Satan appears to the syphilitic/mad composer and both sign a pact similar to the works of Marlowe and Goethe. Sokurov and Arabov create a character Mauricius Mueller that represents Mephistopheles, an amalgam of the three literary versions (though there is no official credit to Marlowe in the film).

A viewer, who knows a wee bit about Sokurov and Arabov will realize that they use literature and history to make the viewer think afresh. Unlike the Faust/Dr Faustus of Marlowe/Goethe/Mann, here in Sokurov’s film is a starving Faust who is so poor that he does not have money to eat. Unlike the literary versions of Satan in the different tales, here is a Mauricius Mueller, a disfigured moneylender who farts on screen and crawls around like a reptile, insisting that there is no meaning in life. Sokurov, Arabov and their collaborator Marina Korenova urge the movie’s viewers to look at the famous tale afresh.

Faust is the final part of Alexander Sokurov’s tetralogy dedicated to the subject of power. (The previous parts are Moloch about Hitler and Eva Braun, Taurus about Lenin and The Sun about Japanese Emperor Hirohito.) Faust does win over his adversary in Sokurov’s film unlike in Marlowe’s play and Mann novel where his adversary cautions him that the Devil exists in spite of Faust attaining creative glory in his madness. The crucial importance of the end of Sokurov’s Faust is the suggestion that Faust has got his power/knowledge/carnal desires but that as Sokurov himself asserted in a press conference at the Venice Film Festival, “he walks off in order to become a tyrant, a political leader, an oligarch”. "The tyrants in the previous films of the tetralogy saw themselves as God's representatives on Earth, but they made an unpleasant discovery: they are only human," reads a commentary in production notes for the movie. “In Faust, the reverse is the case: a man is turned into an idol before our very eyes. Faust's triumphal march around the world is only beginning as the film closes.” It is true that every ethical viewer/reader of the Faust tale would like the doctor to win over his adversary. Sokurov presents a starving Faust who seeks out the Mephistophelean moneylender, quite in contrast to Goethe’s tale where the Devil seeks out Faust to tempt and trap. But Sokurov presents a larger question for us to consider, what if our hero of the moment is developing into a tyrant of the future?

Of particular importance is the following fascinating quotation from the film’s scriptwriter, Yuri Arabov, quoted by writer Yelena Andrusenko in her essay Faust or How Man Tempts the Devil: “Sokurov showed a tiny devil being pelted with giant stones. Compared to the evil incarnated in Faust, the devil looks like a fleck of dust on the cultural and mythological stage. And suddenly I realized that we made a film about a breakup between modern man and metaphysics as such. Compared to medieval people or people of the Renaissance, we are just a flat sheet of paper, because when we completely break away from metaphysics, we lose our spiritual essence. We may position ourselves as humanists or as Orthodox Christians. But our hearts are empty and devoid of love. I made a script about how a man tempts the devil, or pawnbroker, how the pawnbroker cooperates with the man, how the notions of duty and kindness change, and how, by striking a deal, the man betrays those notions. As long as the world is divided into the good and the evil, mankind is doomed to live with the Faust syndrome.

Any viewer of Sokurov’s Faust would wonder why the director chooses to use distorting anomorphic lenses from time to time to purposely skew our vision. This a film that recalls John Berger’s iconic book Ways of Seeing and the importance of effects, through lenses, utilized by the filmmakers—in this case director Sokurov and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The viewer is constantly reminded of the mind of the person on screen by the visual of the body. Beautiful grown women appear childlike, imposing men become ogres because an element of their body is magnified. Light and darkness (not new to cinema of good filmmakers) play their part as usual, with pure at heart in dazzling white, while the evil ones are in shadows. The consummation of sex is implied by Faust and his love Margarete jumping into deep blue waters! There is the opening shot of the film which recalls Goethe’s version of the tale where a contract seems to fly down from the heavens to the town where the tale takes place. The entire tale revolves around a pact signed by Faust in blood. But the real treat for the eyes are real scenes from Iceland’s landscape of volcanoes and hot springs barren of plant life that form the basis for purgatory/heaven equivalent that forms the backdrop for the Faust/Satan standoff. Finally, there are several scenes that remind you of the paintings of Breughel and the Flemish school as you watch the film just you recall the painter’s works as you view director Grigory Kozintsev and cinematographer Jonas Gritsius collaboration in Korol Lir (King Lear). I tend to conclude more and more that Sokurov’s decision to make a documentary of the late Kozintsev’s flat was no coincidence and that the collaborative cinema of Sokurov and Arbov is close to Kozintsev’s collaboration with Boris Pasternak.

It is often the choice of actors that makes a great film. The choice of Johannes Zeiler, a low-profile German TV actor in the title role of Faust had probably much to do with the German connection to the making of the film in the German language rather than in Russian. And Zeiler proves his mettle. However, the real actor of the film who steals the show is Anton Adasinsky, the Russian actor, who plays the moneylender Mauricius. Adasinsky is a rock musician and a pantomime actor of considerable repute. Adasinsky is able to present a Satanic figure that both repels and appeals to the viewer. It is amazing to study Adasinsky slip into a grotesque reptile-like asexual appearance from a Shylock-like respectable usurer. What is even more curious is the use of the German actress Hana Schygulla who appears briefly as Mauricius’ wife, to symbolize death. Her appearances on screen merely denotes the arrival of death in the story, much like importance of the clock for the Burton/Marlowe version.

Finally, the music of Faust.  Just as Sokurov relied on Arbov for most of his cinematic works for developing his screenplays, Sokurov leans on Andrey Sigle for weaving the music in most of his films.  While one could argue that Sokurov’s choice of music of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Wagner was impeccable, it young Sigle who presents his creativity in weaving those musical works and that of the opera Faust by Charles Gounod while adding his own. It is rather difficult to appreciate Sigle’s contribution to the film for the uninitiated as the bars of the famous composers tend to dominate. Sokurov has achieved in Faust what Terrence Malick achieved with Alexandre Desplat in The Tree of Life. In both films, the respective directors pick up strands of existing music by great composers and then use the likes of Sigle and Desplat to provide new music that blends with the music already chosen by the director. While viewing the film Faust, anyone who can appreciate music would be tempted to close their eyes time and time again and let their ears feast on what Sokurov provides.

Many critics have rued the fact that Sukurov’s Faust is too complex for the average viewer. It explores why evil takes place today. At the same time it is, as Darren Aronofsky stated, a film that can “change the way you look at films,” for the simple reason that it a lovely example of how a literary work can be used to mirror the European politics of the day (Russian President Putin is said to have bankrolled the film, while some see modern day parallels in European politics from the perspective of Russia.) For Sokurov, the film explores the rhetorical question: who gains from the pact, Faust or the Devil, even after the film shows an obvious view that Faust wins. But is that the true outcome? Sukurov's Faust can be viewed as a flip-side of the Marlowe ending--where the devil wins but Dr Faustus repents. For the reflective viewer, the film definitely provides more than one possibility. Sokurov's Faust is essential viewing for those who value intelligent scriptwriting along with  creative use of music, art direction, and photography—all critical inputs for good cinema.

P.S. Faust was the second best film of 2011 for the author. Kozintsev’s Korol Lir (King Lear) and Malick’s The Tree of Life discussed above, have been reviewed earlier on this blog.