The 2011 Russian Film “Faust” is a new interpretation of an old story about a old man making a deal with the Devil as he faces his mortality succumbs to a midlife crisis with an infatuation with a young girl. In German with English subtitles, the movie won the Golden Lion at the 28th Venice International Film Festival.

Faust is part German legend and in 1808,  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe took that morality tale and made it into an extended poem about a man named Faust who searches for the essence of life, the spark that animates a body not unlike Dr. Frankenstein.

The original tale was about a bored man, Faust,  who makes a bargain with the Devil. The Devil’s servant, Mephistopheles serves Faust for 24 years but gives up his soul to eternal damnation. Faust then has Mephistopheles help him seduce a young innocent girl, Gretchen. In some versions, Gretchen is destroyed yet she is saved in death and enters heaven. Faust becomes corrupt and ends up in hell.

Goethe’s version of the tale has Faust saved through Gretchen’s appeal to God and his constant striving.

Director Alexander Sokurov begins this as a mysterious journey. From an a journey through the clouds, we don’t end up in Kansas or Oz. We come down into a German village and then rest with a close up view of a man’s penis with a drop of blood. The man is dead, but we’re not sure what we’ve dropped in on. Is this a murder? Is it some gruesome surgery? Is this a horror movie?

Even as we realize what is happening, the atmosphere is pure 19th century horror flick. A man , Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is pulling out the guts of a corpse, elbow deep in gore while chewing on some food that his servant feeds him from a plate. The man eats it up like a dog, without taking his bloody hands out of the muck of what’s left of a man.

The corpse is sliced from clavicle to just above the pubic bone, leaving the penis untouched. The intestines are searched as if for a treasure. The man is looking for the spark of life.

“Faust” is supposedly the last addition for director Sokurov’s study of power and people. He originally took on real people: Adolf Hitler in “Moloch,” Vladimir Lenin in “Taurus,” and Japanese Emperor Hirohito in “The Sun.” Now Sokurov turns to a different era, the murky distant past. This is sometime before the automobile and the two world wars.

Think of it as sort of like a renaissance fair where the participants can come from hundreds of years a part. God and Christianity has taken hold and that makes sense because this is a morality tale. Unlike those costumed gentile journeys into the past, things are not clean except for the women that are objects of lust.

Faust must eat more than that biscuit he took off of a plate and for money he goes to a moneylender, a lumpy man, Mauricius (Anton Adasinskiy). who refuses all the good doctor has to sell, but instead asks for something more–Faust’s signature.  They become good pals and Mauricius takes him to sightseeing.

They go to large area where women are washing clothes. There Mauricius decides to bathe, revealing a body with fat that doesn’t hang but instead are like lumps of clay pounded on to an extreme pear-shaped body. The load doesn’t protect his love organ–his penis is set just above his anus on his buttocks. This doesn’t’ horrify the good doctor or the woman who will become the object of his lust, Margarete (Isolde Dychauk).  The director treats her little more as an object. Faust and Mauricius get to look up her skirt by merely lifting it in full view of the other women and without Margarete seeming to notice or care. Is this a case of the Devil acting in a manner that the others are unable to see? I’d say no because this never happens again, the bystanders aren’t frozen and nothing in the subtitles indicate that the two are invisible temporarily to the rest of the crowd.

It sets the tone for a creepy uncle type of characterization of Faust and says something about director Sokurov.

Margarete isn’t even horrified when Faust kills a young soldier in a dusty old tavern. The soldier turns out to be her brother. Faust eventually convinces the girl to allow him to bed her. She actually needs little convincing or sweet words. We see her in overexposed and thus overly white closeups, from her face to lingering shots of her genital hair before Faust buries his face between her legs.  Sounds like ethereal soft porn? At least we don’t have non-simulated sexual acts.

In Sokurov’s world a homunculus is possible but this neither frightens commoners like Margarete nor horrifies her.

And after Faust has satisfied his lust, she disappears from our story. Her journey to heaven or hell is of little concern to Sokurov. Faust is sentenced to a hell that is actually Iceland.

If you aren’t disturbed by the creepy uncle and voyeuristic aspects of this movie, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel includes shots that are tilted, foreshortened, or stretched out of portion. He also changes the lighting from sepia, to romantically soft colors to bluish tones.  Some of the shots are beautiful, but Sokurov isn’t looking at the past, whenever that might be, with rose-colored glasses. This is a grimy, dirty past where the men could all use a bath it not a cold shower and life can come to a sudden brutal end with only the Devil collecting his due at the end.

“Faust” finished its run at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 but can will be playing at other venues nationwide.

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