The story of Faust is an old German legend first written down in Latin in 1587, translated to English in 1592, forming the basis for Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in 1604. The most famous version of it, however, is the two-part play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in 1808, and often held to be the single greatest piece of literature in any language except for the works of Shakespeare.
As such it has of course invited many adaptations in many media, including movies. For instance, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor famously did a movie of Marlowe’s play in 1967, which was decent but no immortal classic. Adaptations of great classics are often twisted into something slightly different, because the creators often want to put a new spin on the tale, or because they think that the more classic adaptation has already been done many times, but the problem is that a great classic is a great classic for a reason. If you start messing with it, it invariably becomes something less. Something different, yes, but also something less, because the original substance is seldom well preserved when the work is changed.
So I was happy to find that this new Russian movie version of Faust is not just a movie that owes a little debt to Faust, or putting a new spin on it, but actually intended as a fairly straight (if also fairly loose) adaptation of Goethe’s great literary achievement. It is even filmed in the German language.
If anyone needs to have the tale summarized, it is about a medieval or early enlightenment doctor/astrologer/alchemist who is ahead of his time and thirsting for more knowledge than is available to him – and also for a perfect woman – and so he sells his soul to the devil in order to attain these things. Which is of course always a pretty bad idea.
This Russian movie’s setting is a very dirty and rural 18th century, which seems to be almost medival, but very picturesque. Faust has an uneasy relationship with his young assistant, Wagner, who seems to be mentally unstable. Faust always needs money for supplies and living, and ends up entering a pawn shop where he finds the somewhat grotesque figure of Mephistopheles, a.k.a. the devil. He becomes his new constant companion, always talking about everything from money to philosophy. The devil is played extremely effectively and eerily; the actor has powerful dark eyes and is equipped with a trunk of a body that recalls the alienness of a fallen and deformed angel (his genitals are at the bottom of his spine, forming a small tail); certainly a creature from another realm who also behaves the part, namely rather obnoxiously.
Faust remains skeptical of Mephistopheles until eventually he finally gives into him and signs his soul away in blood, mainly because he has fallen in love – not just in lust, but in love – with a very young girl called Margarete. And she likes him, too. Just why it is necessary to do a deal with the devil in order to attain her is actually not clear here.
The movie does not include everything from Goethe’s Faust, and it does take liberties with a number of details, including some important ones. It is not as exciting as it perhaps ought to have been, and it sadly fails to reach anything remotely reminiscent of the level of intellectual stimulation that is so alluring and captivating in Goethe’s play. It does have many good elements, especially visually. However, it shows additional weakness towards the end when there ought to have been a couple of good climaxes to show the effects of the deal with the devil, but we skip the climaxes and jump to a strange scene where everything is a mess and it isn’t clear what has been taking place.
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Cast: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk, Georg Friedrich and others.
Runtime: 134 min.