Sokurov's "Faust": Some Thoughts from a German Perspective

in 22nd Tromsø International Film Festival

by Bodo Schönfelder

Of course, when one goes to the cinema and sees a film by Aleksandr Sokurov, no—one expects a film very close to the famous theatre piece by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Still, I was surprised how far he drew parallels with Murnau’s silent film, the theatrical basis, and achieved distance at the same time. In the beginning the camera flies into a closed village of medieval design, dwarfed by a mountain region. There reigns poverty, illiteracy and illness. There are no signs of hope. The people accept their caged life. Faust is one who wants to change this. He cannot accept these more than depressing conditions. In this, the film is very near to the version of Murnau. What is striking, is that Sokurov cuts out all the romanticism of the silent film and the aesthetic pathos of the theatrical piece. In a strange way it is more realistic, despite all its calculated artificiality.

Faust is more like a modern scientist who hasn’t cut himself off from the roots of spiritual thinking. Even in his clothing and behaviour he is a man of the beginning of the nineteenth century, at the beginning of the successful road of science in its contemporary meaning. Still he asks the questions of natural philosophy. In contrast, Wagner is not a servant, but really a student or assistant, who is fixated on the positivistic questions of the science to come.

Mephisto is no metaphysical devil, a negative force which is part of every development, but a cynical moneylender at the beginning of modern capitalism, who tries to get rid of illusions. He does not need magic, but uses the power of structuring and manipulating situations. The contract with Faust about his soul is just a new way of ‘modern’ relations. Astonishingly, the film here comes close to the seldom staged second part of Goethe’s work, which is more a philosophical treatment of the beginning of a new society in light of the works of Hegel than a sequel to the dynamics of the first part.

This is evident in the parts of the original text which Sokurov and his writer use. They mix fragments of the first and the second part, and arrange them in another chronological order. They even use just single words and draw on other texts by Goethe. And they invent their own lines. The actors mumble and hiss. Very seldom the spoken words try to present the aesthetic quality of the theatrical text. It is clearly a reduction of the gigantic oeuvre, which in return produces its own greatness, showing off the huge efforts which went into this film. It closes down any question of comparing the qualities of the literary source and the filmic adaptation which so often mar discussions.

His approach allows the director to change the more positive endings which you find in all filmic adaptations of Faust, and in the two parts of the theatre piece. There is no redemption, no hope, no salvation. Man has to go on, always asking questions, never finding real answers. The world is incomprehensible forever, often adversary. Sokurov shows it in yellowish-greenish colours. It is no place where you can live on in a peaceful way, as Goethe had hoped. Man has to create himself, which is very near to Goethe’s conclusions, but radically transformed, as could be expected from this director.