Aleksandr Sokurov’s demented, gunky take on the Faust legend tumbles from one scene into the next with loping, loopy energy. People gnash their teeth and bite each other’s elbows and wrists; everyone is always falling down, jumping up, tripping over each other. The direction of onscreen movement changes from shot to shot—left to right, right to left, back to front. Even the camera seems drunk, drifting in queasy circles as objects squint into focus.
Presented with so much impatience and movement, a viewer can’t help but ask where the hell Faust thinks it’s going. The movie circles its subject, with characters continually leaving and returning, asking questions, but never providing straight answers. The chatter—most of it between anatomist Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler) and non-human pawnbroker Mauricius (Anton Adasinsky)—is nearly nonstop.
Faust foregrounds decay, bodies, and death, as a movie about a man deliberating selling his soul. After opening with a CGI aerial view of a 19th-century German town, Sokurov cuts straight into a close-up of a corpse’s grayish penis; out of focus in the background, Faust is dissecting the dead man’s abdomen, while his simpleton assistant (Georg Friedrich) wonders aloud about which part of the body the soul resides in. Everything is squalid and squashed together. The dialogue, all dubbed, is mixed without any consideration for space or distance. Sokurov’s decision to shoot the film in boxy Academy ratio further contributes to the claustrophobia. There’s an overwhelming impression—established by this first scene, and sustained throughout the film—that life is clownish, fragile, and cramped.
The alternative isn’t much better. In lieu of a handsome and terrifying Mephistopheles, the viewer gets Mauricius, who has a grotesque body, no genitalia, and a rank odor. He isn’t even smart; the contract he draws up for Faust’s soul is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. Point being, because life is miserable, earthly pleasure is meaningless—it’s just a different expression of decay. The only desirable thing is power.
As its closing credits indicate, Faust is intended as an epilogue to a trilogy of films Sokurov released around the turn of the century—1999’s Moloch, 2001’s Taurus, and 2005’s The Sun—which dealt with 20th-century political figures who were either losing power or had already lost it. Faust is more complex than these earlier films. It manages to convey a desire for power in abstract terms, divorced from material gain or a need to be admired. What’s more, it manages to do it with energy and a good deal of weird humor.