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Review: Faust

A retelling of a parable of ambition feels disturbingly fresh, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Faust (15)

dir: Aleksandr Sokurov

Corroded and powerful men have dominated Aleksandr Sokurov’s work for some time now: his new film, a heady take on Goethe’s Faust, comes in the wake of Moloch (where the subject was Hitler), Taurus (Lenin) and The Sun (Emperor Hirohito). Had he not declared this latest film the final part of a tetralogy, his analysis might sooner or later have been applied to everyone from the squabbling players at the Leveson inquiry all the way up to Putin, who supplied government funding for Faust – a fact now widely acknowledged as the new dictionary definition of ironic.

No one could accuse Sokurov of not starting as he means to go on in Faust: one of the first shots is an extreme close-up of a dead man’s grey, listless genitals. Several inches north, Dr Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is up to his wrists in the fellow’s guts, rooting around in search of the soul like a housebreaker ransacking a jewellery drawer. How proud the sound designers must have been when they found the correct sloshing noise to accompany the scene.

As Faust roams the laboratory with his assistant, the roving camera follows them around the dingy set. The dialogue in the picture is essentially a philosophy lecture delivered faster than the speed of screwball. Subtitle-readers will be taxed: depending on how much preparation you like to put in before an evening’s entertainment, it may be prudent to learn German before setting out for the cinema.

Sokoruv enjoyed his greatest international success in 2002 with Russian Ark, shot in a single, unbroken take in Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. Faust takes the opposite tack. The cuts are quick, the movement constant, the cinematography enhanced and distorted by filters, optical tricks and CGI. Andrey Sigle’s score incorporates Wagner, Mahler and Gounod, burbling away at low volume as though someone forgot to turn off Radio 3 before shooting began. The verbal and visual rhythm, which barely wavers over more than two hours, makes the film as restless as Faust himself.

That rhythm becomes vaudevillian after Faust enters the workshop of the moneylender (Anton Adasinsky), unnamed in the film but known to you and me as Mephistopheles. He identifies Faust’s malady – “The doctor has lost the meaning of life” – and the two men fall into 

a shuffling, bickering double act like a 19th-century Flanagan and Allen. They pass through the twisting, physiological village set, with its spinal texture, compressed layers and passageways, and pit-like caverns. Eventually they reach the public baths where Faust sets eyes on the rust-haired Margarete (Isolde Dychauk). The moneylender disrobes, revealing a slimy, Weeble-shaped body. A drooping penis dangles from the base of his spine. As he paddles through the jade water shrouded in steam, it’s as if a Doctor Who villain had strayed into Ingres.

Faust’s desire for Margarete infects everything that follows. In a tavern, he is drawn to stab and kill a stranger: “It was as if the devil himself put the fork in my hand,” he gasps. The victim turns out to be Margarete’s brother and the murder draws him into her life. All he wants is one night with her. In fact, his wish can come true. He simply needs to sign the contract that the moneylender has prepared. But there is no ink. Whatever could he use instead?

There are so many aspects to the film’s brilliance, not least its visual breadth. Sokurov and his cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, dabble in colours that seem never to have existed on screen before – the crunchy, deep-frozen green of the woodland where Faust strolls with Margarete, or the silvery monochrome introduced when he climbs into a suit of armour.

The key to the film’s potency lies in its acceptance of the magical and the repellent. When a hard-boiled egg is produced from between a woman’s legs during a gynaecological exam, no one bats an eyelid. (Nonplussed, she eats it.) A sword plunged into a stone wall releases an arterial spray of red wine. Faust’s telescope shows a monkey scampering around on the surface of the moon and an admirer presents Margarete with a gently whimpering homunculus in a jar. Sokurov extends no special fanfare or emphasis to these fantastical sights, knitting them routinely into the film’s fabric.

It’s that blasé approach that gives Faust its kick. When the doctor’s wish finally comes true, he is so enraptured by Margarete that he doesn’t notice the ghouls with mangled faces who are clambering slowly through the window behind him. The metaphor of a power-hungry man oblivious to the horrors he has unleashed is not uniquely applicable to us. The skill of Sokurov’s version is that it takes this parable of moral decay and makes it feel as fresh and haunting as a nightmare

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food