Sokurov concludes his Moloch trilogy, on evil and power, with a loose adaptation of Faust. So loose, in fact that one would be hard-pressed to recognize anything of the original save the name of the protagonist. He’s still a doctor, but poor, neurotic, and, after a while, fixated with a very young girl named Margarete. It is for a night with her, rather than for unlimited knowledge, that he finally signs the Mephistophelean pact late on in the film, and rather than the smooth persuader who will inevitably triumph, this Mephistopheles is a vile, goatish moneylender named Mauricius who ends up buried beneath boulders in a place suggestively described as “far away and very high up”.
The film opens with a descent through clouds, past a cinemascope-shaped mirror, and swoops over an ugly, shining CG landscape. This is the last sense of distance and perspective we will have until the film is almost over. Cutting to a giant close-up of the grey-green penis of a dissection subject, guts spill and gurgle as the camera, Faust and his assistant whirl around, pondering where the soul may be found, and the merry-go-round is on. For Sokurov has adopted a particularly heady ’70s Euro-style, à la The Hourglass Sanatorium, wherein the film seems to consist of one headlong, scattershot conversation in near real-time, as the protagonists scamper through bustling sets and crowds of local color, tossing out questions about life and death, good and evil, getting into impromptu scrapes, and generally obscuring the through-lines of plot and theme.
It all looks tremendous, with boisterous peasants and townsfolk cavorting in fine eighteenth century sets and a rigorously (somewhat over-controlled colour palette, that at its best conjures a Breughelian vision in greens and browns. Sokurov emphasizes the bustle by hemming his characters into a vignetted Academy frame, compounding the disorientation through frequent use of the squeezed and slanted anamorphic lens, as he has recently been wont to do, for some impenetrable reason. Most confusing of all is why he bothered to cast the wonderful Hanna Schygulla in a brief and almost wordless role that would have no impact at all if she were an unfamiliar face (fantastical hats aside).
There is a brief respite from the perpetual motion when Faust and Margarete commune in lovely golden close-ups (a far more resonant communion than when he finally has his night with her) and amidst the whirligig bustle there are some striking touches: the weird creatures who creep into Margarete’s bedroom; Mauricius’s and Faust’s climb through an abstracted, rocky canyon in full armour, and the hellish geyser they find at the top of the world; and the ghastly homunculus in a jar created by Faust’s assistant. Mauricius himself is a fantastically grotesque creation by Russian clown Anton Adasinsky, with stringy straw hair, evil jowls, and wobbling, weeble walk. But it’s largely difficult to figure out what Sokoruv is getting at here, beyond a freewheeling gallop through the chaos of life – as seen, and distorted, in that floating mirror called cinema – and a dismissal of God and the soul, in favour of the carnal and the venal. An unholy mess.