Magazine article Artforum International

Mephisto Waltz

Magazine article Artforum International

Mephisto Waltz

Article excerpt

JAMES QUANDT ON ALEXANDER SOKUROV'S FAUST

"IT WILL BE A VERY COLORFUL, elegant picture with a lot of Strauss music," predicted Russian director Alexander Sokurov in 2005, envisaging his long-nurtured version of Goethe's Faust: "There won't be any smell of war, but you'll sense the aroma of chocolate in the room." Six years later, after Vladimir Putin had personally ensured the film's funding, the Faust that triumphed at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, proved more metaphysical dirge than frothy operetta. Along the way, the color turned dun and fungal, the elegance to grotesquerie, the Strauss to pastiched Gounod and Wagner, and that warm, chocolaty fragrance to the stench of excrement and putrescent flesh. (A scratch-'n'-sniff exemplar of olfactory cinema, Sokurov's Faust fairly reeks of rot and scrofula; even a passing comet is reduced to "a fart!" as the lank-haired tavern keeper cries in delight when Faust describes the celestial body as a "ball of gas.") Frenetically edited, theatrically acted, and garrulously scripted--one can feel felled by the film's landslide of subtitles--Faust reverts from the hushed, ascetic monodramas of Sokurov's late period to the fanciful storms of histrionics and anachronism that characterized such early works as Mournful Indifference (1987) and Save and Protect (1989). As such, it makes for a puzzling summation to the Russian director's "Men of Power" tetralogy.

The previous entries in that eccentric quartet portray three twentieth-century leaders responsible for mass slaughter: Hitler in Moloch (1999), Lenin in Taurus (2001), and Hirohito in The Sun (2005). Sokurov construes each man's will to power as, respectively, consuming mania, imagined omnipotence, and purblind haplessness--restricted in each case by the frailty of the flesh. Sokurov's neurotic Hitler endures digestive and other ills; his stroke-distressed Lenin struggles as his body falters and he slides into childlike dependence and dementia; and his obtuse Hirohito, made small and awkward by the director's diminishing compositions, seems to test the air with carp-like twitches of his imperial lips. Faust announces its motif of physical affliction in the opening sequence, as the camera plunges from the heavens, bypassing an ornate, tasseled mirror--perhaps intended to reflect Goethe's famous pronouncement that "behavior is a mirror in which everyone shows his image"--toward earth, its heavenly trajectory culminating in the rankly corporeal: a close-up of a cadaver's gray-green penis, blossoming with a single crimson pustule. From early on, Sokurov's cinema has often centered on disease and debility--as in Days of Eclipse (1988), in which a postman suffers from the retention of urine--and is populated with put-upon doctors; the viscera-sloshing autopsy that Professor Faust and his mad assistant Wagner perform at the outset of Faust must therefore be counted among the film's many self-references. (Like that of Save and Protect, Faust's setting is purposely anachronistic, conflating aspects of both the medieval and the eighteenth-century; it also returns us to the earlier film's fly-infested world, in which the charnel conjoins the carnal.)

"You've told us so much about the composition of the human body," Wagner whines in the film's first line, "but not a word about the soul." The body being mere "rubbish," the soul must reside in a more rarefied vessel, so Faust's search for the transcendent heads into other realms, ending in the alpine sublime, as if he were attempting to return to the heavens whence his story commenced. Sokurov seems to retain the central theme of Goethe's Faust legend--the scholar's pact with the devil to achieve infinite knowledge (and Gretchen/ Margarete in the bargain)--while jettisoning much else (the demonic poodle, the travails of the pregnant Margarete, Walpurgisnacht). Insisting that he never sleeps or eats--though he is shown gobbling from a plate even as his hands are thrust into a corpse's entrails, and never stops noshing--Faust begins his spiritual mission with a campaign for cash that takes him first to the stinking workplace of his quack father, "an honorable man, lost in the dark," who is treating a patient by stretching his spine on the rack. …

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