Alexander Sokurov brings his singular vision to “Faust,” though it’s difficult to categorize the accomplishment. Forget Marlowe, Goethe, Gounod and Murnau, or rather, lay them aside, since the idiosyncratic helmer adds his own spin on the classic legend, and an over-familiarity with Faust’s previous incarnations will likely hinder understanding. Sokurov conceived the film as the final part to his tetralogy of power (“Moloch,” “Taurus,” “The Sun”), and established fans — the only audience for this largely impenetrable though undeniably impressive indulgence — will fill many pages discussing how the unholy trinity became a foursome.
The basic concept of Faust (Johannes Zeiler) the man is here: a professor and alchemist, craving knowledge yet incapable of being satisfied with the limitations of human understanding. He falls in love with Margarete (Isolda Dychauk, Lucrezia Borgia in the French-German TV series), for whom he signs away his soul. Sokurov’s Mephistopheles however owes little to any other manifestation: He’s known in the film as the Moneylender (Anton Adasinskiy), and unlike most literary embodiments, this devil is no charmer. He’s a snivelly creature, quick with words but the opposite of Goethe’s jocular and sensual beguiler.
Perhaps Sokurov chose to make his Mephistopheles this unappealing so he could highlight Faust’s bald opportunism. Not for him a wily tempter with a bag of tricks but instead a disagreeable coot who simply makes possible the lust for power that was already well established. Faust doesn’t have an excuse to hide behind, but then again, neither does he in Goethe.
But in painting a man who doesn’t need to be seduced toward his downfall, Sokurov also creates greater parallels with the characters of his history films: Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito. In the end, though they’re stylistically similar, the four films contain protags whose use and understanding of power are markedly different, and it’s probably best to leave it to the elliptical helmer to elucidate this particular quartet.
Which leaves “Faust” as film with a maddeningly opaque narrative and a brutalizing cascade of nonstop verbiage. The superabundance of subtitles doesn’t help, impeding the eye’s ability to take in the visual richness and hampering the mind’s capacity to connect what’s going on with the scenes before and after. About 80 minutes in, the camera stops on the silent faces of Faust and Margarete, and the audience feels they can momentarily breathe again before the next plunge.
The influence of Flemish and Dutch painting on Sokurov’s work has never been clearer than in “Faust,” with its deep debt to the witchcraft paintings of artists such as David Teniers and Herri met de Bles. Zeiler’s face comes straight out of a work by Adriaen Brouwer, and Dychauk’s is pure Vermeer, especially in a ravishingly lit close-up that takes full advantage of the actress’ girl-woman features.
Similar to the other films in the tetralogy, “Faust” uses a sophisticated post-synch dubbing technique that plays with layering and aural planes. The device continues to fascinate, but it’s used to greater effect in the earlier pics, whose more measured dialogue is better suited than the barrage of words here. Sokurov forgoes his penchant for fog-bound scenes (perhaps it was too obvious given Faust’s supernatural element), and creates a world restricted to lichen tonalities, whose lack of differentiation can be tiring.
Bruno Delbonnel wouldn’t seem the obvious choice for a Sokurov d.p. — “Amelie” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” probably don’t make the Russian helmer’s list of faves — and while the stillness that marks the first films of his quartet (self-lensed) is little in evidence, visuals here are striking in their mottled gray tonalities. The opening CGI sequence feels oddly like the camera is coming down to Middle Earth, but luckily that sense soon passes, and the final sequence on an Icelandic glacier has a scope not limited by the square 1:1.33 aspect ratio, which is to be pillar-boxed and screened through a 1:1.85 lens.
Less understandable than the format is the lens distortion of certain sequences, which perhaps makes sense after multiple viewings, though few will bother to find out. “What glitters, lives but for the moment; what has real worth, survives for all posterity” wrote Goethe, and only time will tell whether this “Faust” is more pyrite than gold.
Art direction and costume design are derived from the Flemish and Dutch old masters, and clothes worn by Hanna Schygulla, in a brief role as the Moneylender’s purported wife, provide a necessary bit of visual fun. Andrey Sigle’s music, indebted in parts to Gounod, forms a near constant accompaniment.