A lurching crawl through the moldering, candlelit passages of a pre-hygiene medieval meta-Europe, this new version of the Germanic legend from Russian cine-volcano Alexander Sokurov may be the freakiest gloss this deal-with-the-devil story’s ever gotten, down to the ghost-zombies and Icelandic geysers.
Mostly shot in the oldest, filthiest castle alleys of the Czech Republic, and spoken in German, this Faust closes Sokurov’s eccentric, conceptual tetralogy about the corrupting toxicity of power that began 14 years ago with Moloch. But we’re far from the psycho-political last-days hysteria of the other films’ Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito scenarios — instead, Sokurov re-creates a breathtaking Bruegel landscape and troubles it with a penniless, discontented Faust (Johannes Zeiler, something like a hangdog Ralph Fiennes), who half-desires knowledge, wealth, and the young Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), not necessarily in that order, and sometimes not at all. Enter the Moneylender (Anton Adasinsky), a demon in earthly garb, engaging Faust in protracted negotiations and embroiling him in a variety of accidents and brawls, one of which results in Faust stabbing Margarete’s brother to death.
One of the planet’s preeminent filmmakers, and also one of the weirdest, Sokurov doesn’t try to formulate Faust’s saga as an ethical argument, regardless of his tetralogy’s ambitions. Instead, the movie flows like a pollution-thickened stream, with confrontations and intercourses arising by happenstance, and almost always in a creepy rush of inappropriate Sokurovian groping, nuzzling, stroking, close-quarters squeezing, and surreptitious muttering, all post-dubbed and often shot with distorting lenses. Everybody seems to want to pet and lick Faust, including Hanna Schygulla as an ash-faced demoness wandering through in costume-ball finery. The film has the lingering feel of being dry-hump-assaulted by an unwashed psychotic.
Not that it can’t be fun or beautiful — Sokurov is an imagistic wizard, and the textural oddness consistently offers stunning tableaux, from Faust’s first elbow-deep exploration of a corpse’s entrails to his climactic embrace with Margarete as they suddenly plunge into a mountain lake, and thereafter share a bed surrounded by lurking ghosts. Busting in on a massive laundry full of semi-dressed washerwomen, Adasinsky’s devil drops trou to reveal a lumpy monster body with no genitalia and a penile tail — much to the girls’ hilarity.
Amid the foofaraw, Faust’s lusts become confused, leading to dementia. Sokurov is an ambivalence artist, and, predictably, his Faust is further even than Jan Svankmajer’s 1994 incarnation from a convenient and mollifying morality play. Torpedoing even easy narrative conclusions every step of the way, as he’s done since 1997’s Mother and Son, the filmmaker seems here to be instead mustering a stormy human tribulation and then letting the thematic fungi grow as they will. A top prize-winner from the Venice Film Festival in 2011, Faust is not your great-granddaddy’s selling-your-soul fable, but something new, a dreamy immersion into the messiness of myth, where hubris and desire can get lost in the chaos of time and retelling.