Friday, May 10, 2013

10. Aleksandr Sokurov - Faust

Faust is a 2011 film by the Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov that won the Golden Lion award at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. It is a cinematic interpretation of the Germanic legend, with historical precedents within the medium from the likes of F.W. Murnau (1924) and Jan Svankmajer (1994). The tale of Faust was first expressed using language in the form of a play in 1594 written by Christopher Marlowe. It is probably most famous for being the source of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's magnum opus in the form of a two-part play, first performed in 1806. It was furthermore interpreted by Charles Gounod as an opera in 1859 and by Thomas Mann as a novel in 1947. The legend itself is summarily described as the story of "a highly successful scholar but one dissatisfied with his life who therefore makes a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures"(1).

The notion of the Faustian bargain has been incorporated into the discourse of architecture largely by Rem Koolhaas, possibly first mentioned in his infamous Junkspace essay in his identification of the economy as "Faustian" (2), but has been more recently brought to bear on architecture itself in the Chronocaos exhibit in which Koolhaas claims the architect traded significance for prominence (3).

Faust, as a myth which has no one original or "true" form, condemned to interpretation and representation, can be considered a meditation on the historical significance of ethics. As such, Sokurov's film is a contemporary statement on the profound ambiguity of ethics by structuring his narrative around the causality of doubt as well as desire.

The following post is largely a description of the movie, to which a more detailled theoretical analysis will follow in longer form and in another venue. Once it has been published, I will be posting it on this blog. The movie has been describes as complex and almost too hard to understand, therefore I am not sure to urge the reader to read this post or not; I am unable to declare if the theoretical content of the movie can be apprehended distinctly from the unfolding of the plot. Therefore, it is possible that this post can serve as either a guide or a hinderance to such a powerful, beautifully crafted movie.

Sokurov's Faust is embattled in a highly existential discourse in which he employs law, medicine, philosophy, and theology, to search for the existence of the soul and the assurance of meaning in his endeavors. His failures have left him poor and deeply unhappy, to which even his father dismisses him as being impractical in his refusal of "work". Eventually turning to a moneylender, Mauricius, he attempts to sell without luck a ring, "the philosopher's stone", that despite "explaining the nature of things ... [is] worth nothing". Despite his failed transaction, a social relationship is formed between the two men, consecrated by Mauricius' honesty, in returning the ring which Faust forgot in his shop, and generosity, in bringing food for Faust to eat. Through Mauricius' high reverence for Faust as a man of knowledge, they embark together into the town. Ending up in a bar where a group of young soldiers are celebrating a war being terminated, remaining high tensions on both sides result in one of the soldiers being killed in a mob frenzy generated by Mauricius' performing of a miracle, drawing wine from stone. Technically, Faust was the one who was holding the fork that stabbed the man, but the fork was only pushed into the man by Mauricius himself. They both depart the bar in a hurry, with Faust exclaiming in his own resolution of guilt that it was "As if the Devil himself put the fork in my hand".

Upon discovering that the killed man was the brother of Margarete, a woman who Faust had recently met and lusted for, Faust subsequently desires to relieve his moral guilt for killing this man. Unable to do so himself using the symbolic gift of gold, Faust obliges the help of Mauricius, to which he complies without much hesitation. Through their direct confrontation and dialog, Faust is able to captivate and entice Margarete with his intellectual posture. After their encounter, Faust find himself extremely pleased but yet wanting more all the same. He then pleads Mauricius to disclose his knowledge of Margarete and his creativity in finding a way to become closer to her. Again, complying without objection, Mauricius proposes that Faust put himself in the church's confessional booth to which Margarete frequents, which reveals that the priest is one of Mauricius' "clients", and could therefore be distracted easily. Margarete's growing fondness of Faust is complicated when she returns home to find out that Faust is her brother's murderer. Unable to believe her source of information, she immediately runs to see Faust, and despite being unable to ask the question once she arrives and instead settles into a more playful emotive stance, upon leaving she asks whether Faust killed her brother, to which he confesses.

Terribly afraid that this event will not only lead to Faust's imprisonment but the termination of his relationship with Margarete, Faust returns to Mauricius to explain the situation and beg for his services so that he can spend one whole night with her. Unable to find a solution, in place of "imagination", Mauricius claims to have "something better", a contract that would pledge the soul of the signer to the Devil upon death in exchange for his one wish. Signed in blood, passing through an underground tunnel in the basement of Mauricius' shop the night unfolds in an oneiric state. After being confronted with uncomfortable signs, Faust quickly leaves the house and is met by Mauricius at its exit with a suit of armor, with which Faust must avoid death and earn his guilt's forgiveness. Their path leads them to purgatory, where Faust is swarmed by dead men in thanks for their death. Pulled away from their grasp, the two continue forward alone onto a mountainous rocky terrain where they come across a geyser, fascinating Faust. When claiming to not know how it works upon being asked, Mauricius expresses his desire to leave and move onwards. Faust vehemently resists, bites Mauricius' arm, and tries to seek independence. In light of its potential ineffectivity, Mauricius confronts Faust about his upholding of the contract. 
Mauricius - Wait! You can stay longer if you wish. Even without a soul.
Faust - Leave me alone. I don't need you anymore! What is it you want? Why did you show me those madmen who even In the sleep of death cannot forget their war? What have you given me? Not even money for my ring!
Mauricius - Power, influence ... one can only seize such goods oneself! Nature and spirit ... that is all one needs to create here, on this free land, a free people. But. seriously now, I have a contract.
Faust - A contract? [Laughs]
Mauricius - You signed it!
Faust - I have to concentrate! Leave me alone. [Faust runs into the distance]
Mauricius - Wait! The soul! Your soul. I'm entitled to It.
Faust - The soul?
Mauricius - You signed the contract with your blood!
Faust - Feel free to submit it on Judgement Day.
[Faust rips the contract from Mauricius' hands, pushes him into a hole, and throw large rocks on top of him until he is questionably dead, though definitively quiet and invisible] 
[Faust runs "over there, farther and farther" in "eternal solitude, and no hope of salvation"] 
Film still, Faust (2011) 
[Film end] 
In conclusion, Sokurov's Faust is extremely successful at representing a moral order, and, not necessarily its immanent inapplicability, but its radical contingency, and as such, the potential for its disregard. While the concepts of ambiguity and contingency have been used within discourse as a basis for resistive, reformative, and revolutionary activity, this movie viscerally communicates the vertiginous effect, and consequence, of space without law.

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