Making its way to UK cinemas eight months on from its Golden Lion win at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Alexander Sokurov’s Faust (2011) has lost little of its enigmatic zeal in the interim period. Critical opinion has been somewhat divided on this final chapter in the Russian director’s tetralogy (which includes 1999’s Moloch, 2000’s Taurus and 2005’s The Sun), yet for all its over-ambition and debatable inaccessibility, this unique take on Goethe’s classic tale remains one of the most mesmeric, hypnotic cinematic experiences of the last twelve months.
As with Goethe’s original text, Sokurov’s adaptation centres on the somewhat lowly character of Faust (Johannes Zeiler), a professor and alchemist who craves knowledge, yet finds himself constrained by the limitations of human understanding. It is his own poverty-plagued existence which leads our protagonist to the town’s demonic moneylender Mephistopheles (Anton Adasinskiy), a repugnant, overweight creature who quickly agrees to aid Faust in his quest – in exchange for possession of his eternal soul.
From its magnificent opening shot, tearing through the atmosphere to gaze down from the heavens before reappearing inside a human cadaver, Sokurov’s latest work demands to be seen writ large on the big screen. The sheer scale of the existentialist subjects at hand can easily overwhelm, and those not 100% willing to follow the modern Russian master in his dreamlike voyage may well find themselves lost and seemingly abandoned within the opening half an hour. However, those willing to dedicate a little time and patience to the painterly Faust will, like the character of Mephistopheles, find themselves richly rewarded.
Unlike previous, stagy adaptations of Goethe’s drama, Sokurov appears to take immense pleasure in creating his own unique medieval universe, rather than grounding it in historical Germanic trappings. This consequently allows for true creativity in terms of costume design, which blends a number of different period styles to create something wholly original. Similarly sublime is the production design, with Sokurov seemingly building an entirely new world on a relatively small budget of £8 million – Disney, take note.
Those who enter Sokurov’s Faust close-minded are likely to leave in a similar state. Indeed, much like his 2002 film (and argued magnum opus) Russian Ark, there is always the danger that his latest endeavour will be admired more for its technical achievements than its dramatic thrust. However, for those looking to leave reality behind for some exquisitely-crafted existentialist musings, Faust is a must-see, operatic arthouse event.