By Jeremy Carr.
Faust submits an unnerving introduction to a world defined by cumulative weirdness and instability, where physical transformation is a prevalent force engendering the potential for change….”
From F.W. Murnau to Alexander Sokurov, adaptations of the Faust legend have been cinematically rendered by some of the medium’s supreme visionaries (to say nothing of the countless stories concerning more generalized “Faustian bargains” as plot points). While it’s almost redundant to say Jan Švankmajer’s interpretation is quite different than these prior or subsequent features – quite different being what the acclaimed Czech animator does best – it is worth pointing out how his version of the story distinguishes itself in terms of inspired genesis. Released in 1994, Švankmajer’s Faust (Lekce Faust, “The Lesson of Faust”) does not derive from one single execution of the Faustus tale, but rather mingles elements taken from such esteemed sources as Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus” and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust” and assimilates those ingredients, with others, into a wholly original concoction.
Faust, the persuaded scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, is in this account a rather unassuming everyman, first emerging from a Prague subway like any other nondescript commuter. Played by Petr Čepek, Faust is described by the official synopsis previewing Faust’s rerelease as a “businessman,” but even that broad description is hard to ascertain by what Švankmajer presents. His ambiguous presence suggests a beleaguered, impoverished, and lonely individual, living in a filthy apartment (most of the surroundings in the film are similarly decrepit) and burdened by the banalities of life that are soon upended. As opposed to seeking wisdom, as is usually the case in stories of Faust’s surrender, it’s significant that the aforementioned synopsis notes this character’s pact is “in return for 24 years of self-indulgence,” as his incentive seems to be of a decidedly more frivolous and wanton sort, acting against this perceived bleakness.
Launching his film in this prosaic, contemporary reality, Švankmajer shows Faust receiving a map handed out by shadowy vagabonds, distinguished by an “X” assigned to an enigmatic spot on the illustration. At first, Faust disregards the item and proceeds with his routine existence. But even this in Švankmajer hands is hardly innocuous. Though withdrawn on the surface, Faust is keenly attentive to his environment, noticing with a passive curiosity the disturbing features and events that surround him, from the surreal distortion of inanimate objects to the grotesque close-ups of food and waste and other tactile substances that form Faust’s graphic consistency. Pursuing a reprieve from this unrefined monotony, he eventually seeks out the spot marked on the map and finds the site imbedded in a ramshackle courtyard, which takes him into a labyrinthine setting that encompasses a theater, an alchemist’s laboratory, and other incongruous situations.
These rhapsodic marionettes provide preliminary narrative exposition, then become increasingly verbose, spirited, and sinister.”
With no musical accompaniment, and initially little dialogue, Faust submits an unnerving introduction to a world defined by cumulative weirdness and instability, where physical transformation is a prevalent force engendering the potential for change that Švankmajer imbues in nearly every conceivable object and individual. While age has hindered Faust’s seamless integration of stop-motion effects and the live-action footage – by now we’re used to a far more unified assimilation – the variance actually makes the presentation more otherworldly and fantastic. Seeing Švankmajer’s clay configurations brought to diabolic life remains a fascinating exhibition of artistic novelty, and for a film that revels in its artificiality and its sustained aura of theatricality, the handcrafted nature of the animation is sufficiently captivating. This is especially the case with the self-effacing manipulation of puppets that dominate the picture. These rhapsodic marionettes provide preliminary narrative exposition, then become increasingly verbose, spirited, and sinister. And it’s through their revelations that Faust ultimately succumbs to the temptation of power prompting him to strike the infamous bargain, summoning Mephistopheles and offering Lucifer his soul.
Švankmajer’s Faust takes a meandering route in arriving at the fundamental crux of its story, establishing the essential contention between black magic and theology, between angelic and demonic conflict, and he allows for ample departures into more chaotic and disorienting territory with no readily apparent rationale (including a scene of unexpected sexual deception). While ably conveying the central Faust tale, then, Švankmajer also, and arguably more impressively, crafts an unsettling and unsettled escalation of pervasive unease and abrupt, often absurd scenic transitions. Avoiding principles of rhyme or reason, the resulting film is remarkable for its fragmented and dreamlike execution, which is par for the course in Švankmajer’s work and which surely makes this Faust adaptation among the most unusual and distinctive.
Faust is now in virtual release through KimStim.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).