Judge P.S. Colbert needs to know how to get the smell of Homunculus out of his curtains. Anybody?
"Based on the tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe."
I don't know from Herr von Goethe's literary masterpiece; I've not so much as cracked its cover, much less read a word of it. Of course, one doesn't have to read Goethe to know the story, as its very title has worked its way into our parlance. A Faustian bargain is what one makes by selling his soul to the devil.
Untutored as I am about the source material, I remain doubtful that Goethe begins with Doctor Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler, Revanche) engaged in the dirty business of pulling organs from a disemboweled corpse, while searching for its soul.
Thus, director Alexander Sokurov's (Russian Ark) Faust sets off on its peculiarly grim gambol.
The Russian film maker's German-language translation takes for granted that his audience knows where things are heading, and therefore, feels no obligation to hurry onto the deal-making, as it were. But rather, the film unspools in a deliberately leisurely (some might say arduous) manner , making a case for the suicidal despair that will ultimately drive Heinrich to pact with der Teufel . Of course, one doesn't actually bargain at all; one becomes indebted. And who can blame the starving, penniless and hopeless Doctor for wagering all in exchange for one night alone with milky-white Margarete (Isolda Dychauk, Borgia) who's not merely the fairest maiden in the village, but the only beautiful woman to be seen from opening through closing credits?
Indeed, here one enters a world of bleak, poverty-stricken ugliness unlike no other. The unnamed region is one of slanted floors and roads crooked as a wizened old peddler's spine. What's more, these narrow streets never lead to greener pastures, but merely hold traffic and swirling dust in a perpetual bottleneck. Here, the folks wear black not because it's slimming, but because there's always a funeral parade moving through. Here, the characters don't converse so much as discourse, swapping philosophical phrases and speaking in riddles. Often, the lines seem disconnected from the speakers (even when they're on screen), and there's no obvious demarcation between inner and outer dialogue.
Given all this, I don't see how anyone could hope to "get" this Faust in one sitting. As for myself, I believe I set personal records for replaying, just in order to keep up. It's nothing if not a film that requires intense concentration and a great deal of patience, but for those who enjoy doing the work, the payoff more than suffices.
As Mauricius, the money-lender (and Mephistopheles stand-in), actor Anton Adasinskiy flourishes with a stylized performance filled with lurching steps, feral noises, and all manner of twitches and tics, including a good deal of sniffing. Incredibly, he never goes over the top, achieving the perfect balance of odiousness and charm to send decent, God-fearing folk running for the hills, while drawing the desperate title character ever nearer. Perhaps inevitably, given his all-consuming inner turmoil, Zeiler's Faust—through no fault of the actor's—seems somewhat inert by comparison.
The Kino Lorber DVD release faithfully delivers Sokurov's dismal palette, which brings bright red to bloody entrails, but otherwise shifts subtly from sepia to moss green over unrelenting gray in full-frame (the original cinematic presentation was in 1.37:1). There are options for 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo sound, and both do a fine job of rendering the film's discorporeal aural scape. English subtitles are also available, but there are no extras.
Is Faust for you? Hopefully, this review has shed enough light on its aberrant content to keep the tourists safely away. If, however, you do decide to venture boldly into this netherworld, may Goethe bless you.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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