Magical Mister Mephistopholes: Faust

11/06/2013 4:00 AM |

Directed by Alexander Sokurov

Alexander Sokurov’s elaborate two-hour fever dream is based on Goethe’s play and Thomas Mann’s novel—sort of. A fourth in what was previously a completed trilogy of movies dealing with great power and its deleterious effects, Faust can serve as its prologue; here, in the heart of Europe, in a town ringed by walls and woods, the cleverest in the bunch gets hoodwinked by the Devil, or a devil. Or does he?

Goateed Mephistopheles, for once, is absent. Instead, Sokurov spends the first hour tumbling his Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler) through a Flemish Old Master painting as he engages in a kind of meandering, hallucinogenic dialog the director favors: half inner-, half outer-, first with himself and then with Mauricius (Anton Adassinsky), the town moneylender. This world is brown and ochre; mad women coo at birds, and a thin layer of filth shrouds everything. With his sycophantic student, the brilliant, half-starved Faust digs through corpses in a search for The Soul. This isn’t very lucrative—so when the misshapen Mauricius, his bottom-half puzzlingly on backwards, shows Faust some worldly goods in the shape of Margerete (Isolda Dychauk), whose brother he tricks Faust into killing, Faust has no doubts about the bargain. Signing the bloody contract, he corrects its syntax, then goes to claim his prize.

Apparently, Putin put up funding for Faust with no strings attached, and you wonder what, in the film, will be intelligible to him: the slapstick? The troublingly Shylockian attitudes Mauricius takes on? Faust “has no particular relevance to contemporary events in the world,” one of this movie’s producers said, but I don’t buy it. In the beginning was the deed, claims Sokurov’s ill-fated minor devil. In a land run by the soulless and power-hungry, that’s certainly a modern attitude.

Opens November 15