Several things about Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s German-language spin on the Faust legend – the fourth and final part of his tetralogy of films about power and evil after ‘Moloch’, ‘The Sun’ and ‘Taurus’ – make it a difficult, even alienating experience. It’s talky. It’s often rambling. It has a rigorous, even unrelenting, grey, green and brown palette and, narratively, it’s tough to penetrate.
But, still, this ‘Faust’, which won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2011 and is set in an indistinct time and place – presumably somewhere in Germany roundabout the nineteenth century – has a sly humour and down-to-earth mystery that make it cumulatively compelling and allow the themes of the story to burrow deep within the viewer. Moreover, the film’s look gradually takes on a hypnotic power as Sokurov’s constantly travelling camera offers images blurred at the edges, sometimes tilted and with the occasional arresting close-up, such as when he halts on the beautiful, brightly lit face of Faust’s love, Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), and the source of his pact with the devil.
The pairing in this version of the alchemist Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler, looking like a bulbous-nosed Ralph Fiennes) and the Moneylender (Anton Adasinsky, as this version’s Mephistopheles) make this a distinctly earthly version of the tale. This devil is a thin-haired, ugly pawnbroker: it’s only when he strips off his clothes for a brief bathing scene that we’re treated to a penis hanging from his back and a nasty mass of flab that has gathered around his mid-section.
This devil is witty, too. When Faust berates him for tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden, he has a reply. ‘It wasn’t I… but a distant ancestor.’ It’s the balancing of this more quotidian approach with the film’s more ethereal qualities that makes it truly distinctive, and a final section shot in Iceland offers a clever spin on the descent into hell.