The Faust legend is one that’s so ubiquitous it seems that few actually feel the need to read it to understand its significance. The truth is that the legend and myth is vast, encompassing multiple masterpieces from multiple artists across multiple eras. Perhaps it begins in proper with Christopher Marlowe’s play of which was said by Logan and Smith “No Elizabethan play outside Shakespeare has raised more controversy.” Goethe’s Faust, one of the definitive works of German literature is monumental in its scope and content, proving impossible to reduce to any essential elements. It was also subject for Thomas Mann’s modernization in his novel Doctor Faustus. It also has a rich musical history, working its way into an epic opera by Charles Gounod that’s notorious for being impossible to stage. It served as the basis for Hector Berlioz’s experimental “dramatic legend” The Damnation of Faust, as well as Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Mahler’s 8th Symphony and Liszt’s Faust Symphony. Fast forward to the present and we also have a musical by Randy Newman. The legend is no stranger to film either, perhaps rendered most memorably in Murnau’s 1926 silent version.

If there’s any consistency across every adaptation and interpretation of Faust, it’s merely in the grandness of its concept. Faust seems to inevitably provoke artists to reach for the upper echelons of their expressive capabilities in an attempt to explore the inherent themes in Faust that seem to dominate our humanity. Having just read Goethe’s Faust myself, I can certainly understand where the inspiration comes from, as Goethe’s interpretation seems to take its core concept and finds way to explore so many fascinating annexes that encompasses the whole of human history, society, culture, thought, feeling, and ambition. Fast-forward to 1994 and Czechoslovakia and we find Jan Svankmajer; a multi-media artist primarily known for his inventive use of surrealistic stop-motion animation across many short films from ’64 to the present, as well as his ’88 feature film Alice, which was an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Faust was Svankmajer’s second feature, and it’s an undeniably idiosyncratic take on the legend. Freely mixing live-action with stop-motion clay animation and puppetry, Svankmajer draws from Goethe’s and Marlow’s plays, Gounod’s opera, and even Christian Dietrich Grabbe’s lesser-known version to construct a Frankenstein monster of a cinematic interpretation. The film stars Petr Cepek as the titular Faust, who is given a map to an unspecified location by a man on the street. After following it, he stumbles into an abandoned building where he begins to act out the Faust legend in a dizzying variety of ways, including finding himself taking part in the opera and play, as well as seeming to be Faust himself. The film vacillates between the relatively “straight” telling of the legend, most frequently via puppets, and a more metafictional recognition of the fictional aspect of the plays and films itself.

Instead of being any kind of straight interpretation, Svankmajer seems to maintain a more comical, cynical, satirical tone that, if not exactly mocking the play is certainly having a kind of whimsical fun with it. For those unfamiliar with Svankmajer’s sources, the film will likely prove incomprehensible to follow linearly. Even for those who are familiar—like myself, as I’ve also read Marlow’s Faustus as well as Goethe’s—it still proves difficult to try and construct a whole from Svankmajer’s fragmented vision. But even for those at a lost to comprehend that overall vision, it’s impossible to deny the sheer fun and inventiveness of Svankmajer’s imaginative rendering. It may be those elements drawn from Grabbe’s little known version that prove the most valuable as they seem to allow for the bulk of Svankmajer’s comical elements, especially in the form of the jester puppet’s bawdiness.

As an enormous fan of Goethe’s version, I especially loved Svankmajer’s take on Homunculus. In Goethe’s version, Homunculus was a humanlike fetus grown in a test-tube that broke free and traveled with Faust in an effort to become human. Here, Svankmajer creates Homunculus in his own vat full of stop-motion clay, which bubbles and forms in bits and pieces. In true Faustian occultist fashion, Faust can only bring Homunculus to life by scribbling some erudite symbols on a paper and inserting the paper into his mouth. But Homunculus takes to aging quickly, or at least his head does, and Faust is forced to destroy him. The focus on heads seem to echo the heads that roll down mountains (from nowhere) to attach to the puppets that become a central aspect of the film.

Elsewhere, aspects of the play are echoed as well, but metamorphosed into a modernistic setting. One such scene involves Faust visiting an outdoor park and sitting at a bench in which two men silently instruct him to drill a hole in the table. In doing so, wine gushes out of the table, echoing the scene in the play when Mephistopheles did the same thing to an empty wine barrel; this also seems to subtly echo the disturbing scene in which Mephistopheles disguises himself as the beautiful Helena to distract Faust, and uses a drill to create a vagina in his wooden frame. The black dog that transforms into Mephisto also has a role in this film, but instead of being Mephisto in an animal disguise, the dog is chasing after an old man running with a legged wrapped up in a package. Like many elements in the film, the purpose of the scene is left relatively ambiguous, though it does tie into the ending in some significant ways.

Considering that Svankmajer is a noted surrealist, the fact that his Faust isn’t overly concerned with narrative conflict and motivation and, indeed, seems to challenge the very notions shouldn’t come as a surprise to a viewer. But one central question to most surrealism is whether or not is being used to express something specific or whether or not it’s simply pure expression free of rationalization; or even to ask if it’s somewhere in between. If Svankmajer’s Faust feels free of intent, I’m not so sure that it’s free of meaning or social context, the two of which may be connected. That connection is in the concept of free will VS oppression, which can be seen as a mirror for Czech’s history with totalitarianism.

In particular, Svankmajer seems to constantly present the idea of Faust’s choices repeatedly, even against the absence of motiviation. This last part is important because Faust’s motivation is typically at the center of the legend; frustrated with his life of learning, Faust desires to know and experience life on a deeper and more metaphysical level. But Svankmajer’s Faust is rendered in almost silence; he is a figure without any discernable past, who seems to merely step into the role out of curiosity. In the wake of obvious motivation, what we’re left with is a 100 minute exploration of the struggle between how people make their own destinies and become the unwilling victims of their own choices.

This last part is portrayed most potently when Faust enacts his deal with the devil, signing his name with his own blood, and immediately becomes a puppet himself that’s hung up by his strings. The common motif amongst the puppets are as figures moved against their will, and this point is most potently driven home in a scene which finds the Jester discovering a spell which will both summon and repel the devil, and he chooses to torture the creature by repeatedly summoning him and expelling him for his own amusement. But once Faust signs his own fate, he isn’t given any arbitrary reprieve such as in Goethe’s version. Instead, he seems to suffer at the hands of the fantastic nightmares and madness the likes of which only surrealist masters are able to produce.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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