“Faust,” directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, will be shown at the Film
Society of Lincoln Center at 9:00 pm on
Screening as part of the annual Film Comment Selects Festival at FSLC, Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Faust” is the most complex and beguiling film released in the past year. A shrewd adaptation of Goethe’s theatrical landmark that recalibrates the story but remains faithful to its spirit, it functions as the satyr play capstone to the director’s Men of Power trilogy about Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito (“Moloch,” “Taurus,” and “The Sun”).
The Mephistophelean character in this version is the town Moneylender, played brilliantly by Anton Adasinsky as a kind of grotesque commedia dell'arte combination of Harlequin and Pantalone, resembling a human turtle with a diminutive phallus attached backwards. Minimizing the fantastic elements of the plot and focusing on the pain and squalor of late medieval village life, Sokurov subverts Faust’s thirst for knowledge as a benign desire for money and love (i.e. pleasure) that quickly grows into a selfish lust for experience and power.
Faust’s venal narcissism functions as a grotesque mirror of twentieth century autocracy,
a tyrant in miniature pointing the way to imminent atrocities by film’s end. Last seen scaling a mountain in search of the sublime, Sokurov like Goethe sees Faust’s German Romanticism as a dangerous reaction to the failed dreams of the Enlightenment. Similarly, Wagner’s horrifyingly laughable homunculus, a miscarried effort to create an Übermensch, is a precursor to the sycophants and panegyrists of power and their jealous grasping for the scraps of authority.
The Moneylender, though inclined to defecate in church, is also the character closest to wisdom and reason, if not goodness. But as Wagner says, there might not be Good in the world, but there is certainly Evil, despite the amoral protest of the atheist Faust that such a claim is wholly illogical. Faust is certainly not evil, and neither really is the Moneylender, yet they leave a path of murder and devastation in their wake. Nor is Professor Faust as selflessly noble as his father, a doctor who administers a free medical clinic for the poor that never bothers to keep track of the number of patients that his efforts have killed over the years.
Comic, sardonic, and deeply nihilistic, Sokurov’s film is the best kind of satire because it is irredeemably tragic at its core.