The Troubled Path to Glory

in 68th Venice Film Festival

by Susanna Harutyunyan

There were many rumors in regards to Alexander Sokurov’s Faust when it failed to appear at Cannes in May after beingscheduled to. Due to lack of financial resources the work on this film had stopped in April 2011. The film premiere was postponed and scheduled for early September in Venice. After more than two years of work, and with over 9 million dollars budget, Faust turned out to be the most expensive film made by Sokurov so far. It was still unclear whether or not the director would manage to finish the film in time for the opening of the festival in Venice. But all the doubts seemed to immediately disperse after the triumphantpremiere of the film on 8thSeptember in Venice. And immediately thereafter Sokurov’s film was considered to be the best and main candidate for the top award.

In fact, the film also grabbed two alternative prizes — The SIGNIS prize from the World Catholic Association for Communication and the Future Film Festival Digital Award. Chairman of the festival jury Darren Aranofsky commented on the unanimous decision of jury members with the following note “There are films which make you cry, others make you laugh, but there are also films which change you forever and Faust is one of those”.

Alexander Sokurov — with his rather complex character synonymous with his being a rather complicated film director — would certainly have many ill-wishers. There might be some who would call Faust a soap bubble and would account the director’s achievement to the festival’s politics. But it is very obvious that the triumphant victory of Sokurov’s film has been accepted by the vast audience as an un-alternative and uncontested decision. Against the background of other films included in the competition program, Faust undoubtedly stood out as a sample of high cinema art. No other film this year was even close in terms of its artistic scope and originality of language, depth of thought and filigree of metaphoric explorations.

Faust is the final part of the historical tetralogy by Sokurov which the director conceived back in the 1980s and is concerned with the nature of power, and the history of relations between man and the devil. In Sokurov’s interpretation, “Tetralogy is a quadrant or a circle and no matter from which destiny you begin, the circle of human life will be repeating”. The heroes of the other three films are: Adolph Hitler in Molokh, Lenin in Taurus and Japanese emperor Hirohito in Sun (Solnce). All of them are real characters and real people. But in Sokurov’s interpretation Doctor Faust is a real man too who existed sometime in the past. He is a human being, not a mythical character. His destiny is full of events which could happen to real people. Moreover, at the press conference following the world premiere of the film, Sokurov conveyed one of his key messages: “All the heroes of the Tetralogy appear to be approximately of the same age, of the same level of conscience and all stand in one line… Just like brothers.”

So, on the one hand Doctor Faust closes the quadrant and on the other brings to the sources of historical, religious and cultural script on which Sokurov’s “tetralogy of power” is built and which grows into the historical realities of the 20th century in the other films of the tetralogy. That’s the reason why the final film was to serve a special purpose as conceived by the director. That’s the reason why Faust is not the film version of Goethe’s classical poem. It is rather a free interpretation by the scriptwriter Yuri Arabov of the first part of the poem, where the legend is transported forward in time to the 19th century. The director himself said that his Faust was born out of the thorough exploration of national character.

The film is full of allusions to works by Hoffman and other German classics of a later time. German language, German actors, German spirit and German art coexist here in a complexity of ideas. A powerful graphic solution distinguishes the film and this solution is monochrome, with inclusion of artistic light, landscapes which seem to grow out of the art of German romantics, with portraits of men and women in the style of Dürer and Cranakh. The film’s cameraman is Bruno Delbonnel, well known for his work in the films Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. German actor Johannes Zeiler stars as Faust in the film, while Mephistopheles’ character is portrayed by Russian actor Anton Adasinsky.

The metamorphosis which both heroes have undergone in Sokurov’s version of Faust are very significant. Mephistopheles here appears not just as the Devil in human body and flesh, but rather as an imageof mean petty evil. Mephistopheles turns from a mythical seducer into a money-lender which arouses in Faust a dark dictatorial power. In his turn Doctor Faust is obsessed not by thirst for knowledge but rather by natural practicism. He is rationalist, atheist (remember that the actions in the film take place in the 19th Century) who idolizes individual will and power. And that is the direct path to the very radical conception of a superman, to raising homunculus in a test tube, to the manipulation of the masses, to the triumph of neo-barbarism. It is the direct path to Lenin and Hitler.

The image of hell, where the final scenes of the film are shot, undergoes a strange metamorphosis as well. Icelandic cliffs and geysers turned out to be an organic environment for the final scenes which obviously associate with the Nazi ardour for the aesthetics of ‘mountain films’. It is here that Faust pelts miserable Mephistopheles with huge mountain stones thus disdaining the terms of the deal signed with blood. And it is from here that he takes the path — the path of evil — and goes further towards the contemporary reality where cynicism and neo-barbarism prevail.