|Johannes Zeiler (left) as Faust; Anton Adasinsky (right) as Mauricius|
Another film recommendation: we just borrowed the video of Faust, Alexander Sokurov's 2011 film adaptation of the Faust legend. Russian-made, with dialogue in German, it's a "free fantasy" adaptation of the legendary Faust - a man who sells his soul to the Devil - as portrayed by Goethe and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus.
In the Sokurov film, Heinrich Faust is a disillusioned middle-aged academic working in a seedy hospital in a seedy little German town, struggling to understand the nature of life through dissections and dabbling in alchemy. Penniless, he fails to pawn a ring, and buys hemlock to commit suicide. However, at this point he's visited by the sinister moneylender, Mauricius, who drinks the hemlock instead. It doesn't do anything but give him stomach pains, which amazes and intrigues Faust, who takes up the moneylender's offer to show him a side of the town he has never seen.
As the two wander the town, which is populated with grotesques and eccentrics, discussing life and theology, it becomes clear that Mauricius, though not overtly identified as the Devil, is something very strange. He shows Faust some corrupt highly-placed people who are his clients, and gets kicked by a carter who evidently knows his nature. Undressing in a laundry, he is revealed to have a monstrously deformed body with (as a woman comments) "nothing in front" and all his tackle at the back. While at the same laundry, Faust becomes attracted to a young woman, Margarete (played by Isolda Dychauk - a casting straight out of Vermeer). Things turn considerably for the worse when Mauricius starts a quarrel in a tavern by calling the wine "donkey-piss", then in the further mayhem caused by his miraculously making quality wine spout from the wall, engineers it that Faust fatally stabs a soldier with a meat fork. The two go to the soldier's funeral, when we find that the soldier is Margarete's brother; Mauricius uses the situation to broker a meeting between Faust and Margarete. However, despite her attraction to him, the (correct) rumour is spreading that Faust was the murderer, and he further blows his chances by admitting his guilt to her. He goes to Mauricius, who finally springs the deal: Faust's soul for one night with Margarete. Faust signs.
Mauricius conducts Faust through a tunnel to Margarete, who is standing on the edge of a lake, evidently contemplating suicide. Faust embraces her and they both fall into the water. What happens next is a little enigmatic: is the fall a metaphorical one of falling into passion, or literal? I took it as the latter: that the pact has granted Faust's wish in letter rather than in spirit: that Faust and Margarete are both dead, and Faust has spent the night with her only in the sense of being in the same place.
The next morning, Faust appears to wake, with grotesque figures creeping toward the window of the room where he's lying with Margarete. Mauricius aids him in fleeing town, and they ascend a rocky landscape, meeting characters we know to be dead, as Faust (we assume) is too. But Faust finds the wilderness interesting, and is fascinated by the workings of a volcanic geyser. His curiosity about the world revived, he finally tires of Mauricius's nihilistic gripings, buries him under rocks, and confidently departs into the vast glacial landscape.
The film has had mixed reviews. It was a hit at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, where it premiered, but has also been described as "ponderous". It may be; its plot is a tapestry of detail, character, and strange encounter, all relevant to the theme, but not all directly relevant to the central story. I did, however, find it gripping, and its atmosphere intense; it's filmed in Iceland and in various Czech castles, all in visually beautiful subdued pastel (Faust's blood as he signs the pact is about the only saturated colour in the whole film). The film is carried by Anton Adasinsky's charismatic performance as Mauricius, combining the appearance of decrepitude with flexibility and sudden vigour; I didn't know until Googling that Adasinsky is a mime, clown, and veteran of physical theatre. And he does bring a certain dark Boschian humour to a rather solemn movie, in the sheer bizarreness of the characterisation, as when Mauricius reveals his Cronenberg-style body in the laundry (the New Statesman review described it as "as if a Doctor Who villain had strayed into Ingres") or the exchange when Mauricius prepares to defecate outside a church (the horrified Faust tells him he can't do that - he agrees, and instead, with much off-camera groaning, does it inside). If you like weird and moody films, check it out.
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