There is no way of watching a major film festival winner like Andrei Sokurov’s Faust without having to overcome a set of expectations that being such a highly praised flick would entail. To explain in detail what having these expectations means I would like to spend a moment to examine the circumstances of Faust becoming the winner of last year’s edition of the Venice Film Festival. Viennale’s rickety track record of selecting its winners is a prime example of how the politics of a film festival and the judges’ bias towards certain artists has a power to poison its supposedly fair selection process. The most recent edition that brought a lot of negative publicity was the 2010 festival when Quentin Tarantino famously showered his ex-girlfriend Sofia Coppola and her Somewhere with the most important statuettes. Tarantino’s misjudgement prompted the festival’s organisers to introduce more scrutiny into selection process, which would disable the jury from pulling a similar audacious stunt in the future.
The controversy surrounding the 2010 edition inevitably affected the politics of awarding the films a year later. Even without watching the film one can definitely notice how Faust seems to be a very reasonably safe choice. Aleksander Sokurov is quite a renowned artist whose filmography spans almost 20 feature films, many of which were awarded at a multitude of film festivals in the years past. The director’s lack of affiliation with any of the jurors (Darren Aronofsky chaired the jury that year) and his indubitable directorial skills assured that there would be no disagreement in choosing his film as the winner in 2011. Yet the blatancy of it being such safe, uncontroversial choice diminishes the festival’s status and victimises Sokurov by making him the festival’s agent of propagating political correctness. But before we discuss that point a bit further, let’s look at the film itself.
The story of Faust loosely follows Goethe’s 19th century masterpiece of the same title. Doctor Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is disappointed with life which has brought him nothing but misery. In the book, the character is a God-fearing individual who cherishes knowledge above the well-being of his soul. The Faust that we know from Sokurov’s film already acquired all the knowledge a human can hope to obtain and learned that there was no happiness to be found in science. Understanding how the world works made him vulnerable and nihilistic. Faust then accidentally meets a local moneylender named Mauritius (Anton Adasinsky) who represents the devil from Goethe’s prose – Mephistopheles. Mauritius stops Faust from committing suicide and takes him on a journey around the town. In a public laundry Faust notices a beautiful young girl name Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) who charms him with her laughter. A chain of events, all of which are masterfully manipulated by Mauritius, lead the two men to the funeral of Margarete’s estranged brother where Faust is given a chance to make further advances towards the girl. The two make an instant connection but in order to fulfil his sexual desires Faust is forced to sell his soul to the devil.
The list of differences between Sokurov’s film and Goethe’s novel is too long to consider the source material anything more than an inspiration. Goethe’s character was an archetypically romantic, restless soul whose hunger for knowledge of the world prompts him to resign from eternal bliss. Sokurov’s Faust is a cold pragmatic who looks at life through the prism of science, believing only in the certainty of material things. That attitude turns him into a nihilist who thinks that life is both absurd and unfair, lacking any sense of meaning. He follows the footsteps of Kafka’s K, who is unable to make any sense of the social injustice. Just like K, Faust is passively led to his doom, constantly pushed around by society, unable to avoid his disastrous fate.
Sokurov obviously has a message to share through his reinvention of Faust. In one of the scenes Faust visits another doctor who runs a very successful practice in the town. The secret to his success is his sensibility to applying just the right kind of treatment so desired by his patients. According to Sokurov, the intellectual elite are in decline as their insight is undermined by the outgrowing consumerist market. Faust’s expertise is unwanted and unnecessary as it goes against the popular concepts. His blind certainty in science pushes him to the extremes and compels him to deny God or any form of the supernatural. Sokurov criticises him for that. He surrounds his main character with the mystique of nature and presents him with the angelic countenance of Margarete, but the man still cannot see below the surface. In the end his ignorance, as is the case for so many characters, is his undoing.
Sokurov’s theme of spirituality vs. science brings us back to the aforementioned point about the festival’s political correctness. The director’s objection towards a consumerist society is clichéd to say the least. Even more, the director makes some astounding assumptions that people’s vain consumerism is the outcome of a spiritual decline which will lead us to atheism and nihilism. His distrust in science comes from a conviction that no scientific formula can describe artistic sensibilities. The jury of the festival stands in full support of Sokurov’s view, no matter how tiresome and over-prudent the perception of spiritual superiority over science might be. But what matters for Viennale is that Sokurov’s film is a poster child for cinema d’auteur. Through the film’s audacious aesthetics, non-linear storytelling, and artistic inter-textuality the festival board proves that they are still able to recognise ‘real’ cinema. And that creates an interesting paradox – Viennale fulfils Sokurov’s prophecy of artistic decline precisely by awarding his film with the main prize.