Faust contemplates man (above) and civilization (below)
Sokurov sticks to the first part of Goethe's play, which is fine since Goethe himself didn't get around to part two until almost the end of his life. This leaves us in a mundane setting in which Faust (Johannes Zeiler) and Wagner (Georg Friderich) go about their archetypal quest for knowledge by dissecting cadavers. Wagner is creepy from the start and gets creepier later. The ever-frustrated Faust falls in with Mauricius the moneylender (Anton Adasinsky), Sokurov's Mephistopholes. In a great performance, Adasinsky sets the tone for the film. Mauricius is a petty if not pathetic devil -- the bulges in his clothes suggest that his angelic and demonic physical attributes have been stuffed inside his own grotesquely gnarled flesh. As a moneylender, he's often busy collecting on debts in this world, and in that role he's more hated than feared. He makes the traditional promises to Faust, and Sokurov mystifies the proceedings enough with distorted lenses to indicate that Mauricius can back up his claims. Faust isn't sure what he wants from this strange man until he encounters Gretchen (Isolda Dychauk) in a public bath where Mauricius makes a ridiculous spectacle of himself by stripping and flirting with the other girls. As Faust's desire for Gretchen grows, Wagner grows madly jealous, while Gretchen takes interest in Faust, despite his apparent involvement in her brother's death in a pub brawl, as a form of rebellion against a controlling mother.
Anton Adasinksy as Mauricius, clothed (above) and sort of unclothed (below)
The story follows the barest bones of Goethe's outline, though Sokurov doesn't follow Gretchen's storyline to its melodramatic climax. Indeed, the way he ends the film is a stunning statement of, if not his own than Faust's indifference to the moral stakes involved in his dealing with the devil. Like just about everyone else in the picture, the doctor has treated Mauricius with scorn during their walks through town and countryside. After the moneylender finally entices him to sign the infamous pact with blood, and Faust has his night with Gretchen, Mauricius seeks to recruit Faust into some infernal army, giving him armor to put on while donning some himself for a trek into a wild landscape that might be Hell. The armor soon grows uncomfortable and ridiculous for both travelers. More unexpectedly, Mauricius is increasingly uncomfortable with the environment itself, while Faust is increasingly fascinated. For the devil this is, presumably, both his domain and his punishment, while for the man it's just a new world to conquer by gaining knowledge of it. A geyser terrifies Mauricius while Faust adores it until it bores him with its repetition. Impatient and uncomfortable, Mauricius demands Faust's soul, but the doctor tells the devil to wait until he's dead -- and if he won't wait Faust is happy to stone the helpless, wailing moneylender until he's buried under rocks, leaving our antihero free to explore this wonderful, terrible new world.
Repulsive as Mauricius is, you may find yourself feeling sympathy for the devil, for rarely has his work been shown to be more thankless, even when he seems to be winning. If Mauricius is a rebel angel of myth his punishment seems to be an inability to enjoy whatever power he gains over men. In town, he's plagued by a woman who claims to be his wife, while Faust, as a contemptuous ingrate, may be typical of what our mediocre Mephistopheles has to deal with in his real work. It's an interesting take on the devil, but where does that leave Faust in Sokurov's scheme of things? If he wants us to link Faust with his historical subjects from the next century, the thing in common must be a certain arrogant fearlessness or an indifference to consequences -- or a failure to take his own soul seriously.
Faust may leave you wondering what the ultimate point is, but it's a beautiful thing to ponder. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography -- he's since worked with the Coen brothers brilliantly on Inside Llewyn Davis -- will put you in mind not just of Murnau and Herzog but of the paintings, contemporary with Goethe, of Caspar David Friedrich. Visually the picture is as much a masterful accomplishment for Sokurov as Russian Ark was, and the acting lives up to the images. Zeiler is great in the title role, but Georg Friedrich as Wagner nearly steals the film with a Kinskian tirade in which he demands to be called "the great Wagner," tries to convince Gretchen that he's really Faust, and shows her a homunculus -- a disembodied face, really -- he made all by himself to impress her. I must admit that I don't entirely get Sokurov's philosophical or spiritual points, but on a mere movie level Faust is a feast of elegant madness that can be enjoyed on that level -- depending on your taste, or your morals.