Siberia-born director Alexander Sokurov is best known in the West for 2002's Russian Ark, a cinematic waltz through the Hermitage Museum that also functions as a primer on Russian history. The filmmaker is an idiosyncratic historian, though, as he demonstrates yet again with a version of Faust that completes his "tetralogy of power."
Said series previously offered eccentric characterizations of three mid-20th-century dictators: Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito. Faust, of course, is a fictional character. But German history and culture are among Sokurov's concerns in this visually compelling, intellectually scattershot movie.
After descending from computer-generated heavens to a grubby German town, the camera focuses on a penis. It turns out to belong to a cadaver that's being excavated by Professor Faust (Johannes Zeiler).
He and his assistant, Wagner (Georg Friedrich), discuss possibly finding the location of the soul, although it's not clear that the men believe in such a thing. "Good doesn't exist, but evil does," says Wagner later, perhaps expressing Sokurov's view of the world that produced Hitler and Stalin.
Faust is a quester, curious about astronomy and alchemy as well as anatomy, and pondering a better translation of the Gospel of John's opening line. ("In the beginning was the Word.") He's also flat broke; when Faust encounters the moneylender who might also be Mephistopheles (performance artist Anton Adasinsky), he's seeking food, not power or wisdom. This devil takes Faust on a trip through the village, leading him toward murder and lust — and when Herr Professor finally agrees to sign away his soul, it's so he can possess a baby-faced beauty, Margarete (Isolda Dychauk).
That conquest, of course, soon turns to disappointment. Then Satan leads his dupe to an unknown world, where Sokurov flips the outcome of Goethe's Faust.
Most of the movie was shot on sets in Prague, but this final sequence was filmed amid the geysers and glaciers of Iceland, and the wide-open terrain strongly contrasts the rest of the film, whose tiny rooms and narrow streets are crowded with people and a zoo's worth of animals. But all the locations are hallucinatory, thanks in large part to Bruno Delbonnel, the masterly and versatile cinematographer.
His camera is constantly in motion, save for a few meditative moments, and unsettlingly off-kilter. Anamorphic lenses sometimes distort the image, while the lighting, composition and shadowy hues emulate classic Dutch painting. The dream-like look was surely a major factor in Faust's taking the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the 2011 Venice Film Festival.
Another visual influence is German expressionist cinema, especially the work of F.W. Murnau (who filmed his own Faust in 1926). And Sokurov also invokes later German directors, notably with a walk-on by Hanna Schygulla, who has little reason to be in the movie except that she was a Fassbinder favorite.
The film's dense, droll, sometimes murmured dialogue includes other references to Germany's heritage. "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise," thinks a defiant Faust, quoting a line often attributed to Martin Luther.
While the movie's script, co-written by Sokurov, derives from a well-known source, it encompasses themes familiar from the director's other work: masculinity, alienation, the uneasy balance of earthiness and ethereality. At times, it's hard to imagine that anyone — even the filmmaker's recent patron, Vladimir Putin — is as interested in this stuff as Sokurov is.
Viewers willing to follow wherever the self-indulgent director leads, though, are guaranteed an eye-popping voyage. Faust's worldview may be esoteric, but its vision is lucid.