In the end credits, a note identifies “Faust,” Alexander Sokurov’s brooding, hallucinatory, freehanded adaptation of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s great allegorical drama, as the concluding installment of the “Men of Power” tetralogy that also includes “Moloch” (1999), “Taurus” (2001) and “The Sun” (2005).
Those movies are intimate and unsettling visits with some of the chief monsters of the 20th century: Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito. What links them is a lust for power at once madly destructive and profoundly lonely. While Sokurov does not exactly express sympathy for these devils, he refuses to view them as anything other than human.
Viewed alongside its predecessors, “Faust,” which forsakes history for fable, can be understood as an attempt to trace the pathology of modern totalitarianism to its historical and psychological source in the quest for scientific knowledge and everlasting life.
Goethe’s hero — a figure of German legend — is motivated by curiosity, ambition and love. The tragedy is that these impulses cost him his soul, but there is an undeniable element of heroism, of nobility, in his desire to transcend human limitations. His tale is cautionary, and also seductive.
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One of the first images in the film is of a grisly autopsy, during which Faust (Johannes Zeiler), a man of medicine, wonders aloud about the anatomical location of the human spirit. His lofty disquisitions, sometimes delivered to his assistant (Georg Friedrich), are juxtaposed with the sights, sounds and smells of the world around him.
The air echoes with muttered prayers, the clatter of wagon wheels, flatulence and moaning.
And also the music of Richard Strauss (among others), which, along with the graceful camera movements, suggests that humanity is perpetually caught between filth and sublimity.
Faust is impatient with this state. His anguish sends him to a moneylender known as Mauricius (Anton Adasinsky), who is the film’s Mephistopheles figure. Faust and the devil are less like prey and predator than like quarrelsome business partners, the mismatched halves of a metaphysical buddy picture.
Faust’s anguish also arises from his love for Margarete (Isolde Dychauk), whose beauty is a further incentive to seek immortality. But his central relationship is with the fellow who holds title to his soul, and their contractual bond takes on an increasingly strange intensity.
As does the movie itself, which is best understood not through its plot or its themes, but through the dreamy, operatic, elusive spell it casts on the viewer.
Gradually, in the devil’s company, we (and Faust) begin to discover the mysterious beauty of the human environment and the grandeur of nature. The movie expands in its frame, surpassing simple comprehension and continuing to grow in your mind — and perhaps to blow it — long after it’s over.