Today’s cinema adventure: Faust, the 1994 feature by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a surrealist take on the classic German legend in which a scholar trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly knowledge and experience. Set in modern day Prague and incorporating the director’s trademark blend of live action with stop-motion animation, claymation and puppetry, as well as his disturbingly textural use of sound, it represents the culmination of Švankmajer’s long fascination with the tale and stands- along with his other highly distinctive work- as a major influence on more well-known directors such as David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam.
Presenting its own loose adaptation of the familiar morality fable, Švankmajer’s film borrows elements (and, occasionally, entire scenes) from previous versions by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, as well as from the early folk stories of its origin, more or less faithfully following the traditional structure of the narrative; but thanks to the director’s surrealist sensibilities, it recasts the tale in the form of a nightmarish hallucination centered around a nondescript middle-aged everyman who stands in for the mythic scholar. When this hapless protagonist is handed a flyer in the street, upon which is printed only a simple map of the city with a location marked in red, his curiosity- coupled with some unusual occurrences in his apartment- leads him to a mysterious, ruined theatre; there, after donning costume and makeup, he begins to read from a charred and tattered script, setting in motion a hallucinatory cycle in which he enacts the role of Faust. Assisted- and manipulated- by an assortment of other “actors,” human and otherwise, his own identity merges with that of the character he plays, and it becomes clear that his own fate is being determined by the scripted events of the ancient drama in which he has become enmeshed- in which he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil, to instruct him in the secrets of the universe and guide him through the pleasures of earthly life for a period of 24 years, after which he will surrender his soul to be damned into Hell for all eternity.
A dark and moralistic story like this one, born of the same dour Germanic heritage that yielded the Grimm fairy tales and other such cautionary parables, could easily be translated to the screen laden with the ponderously heavy trappings of deep tradition and humorless Puritanism; likewise, given the fact that this legend has provided the inspiration for countless adaptations and re-inventions (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Brian DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise), the familiarity of its basic plot and its themes make it challenging, to say the least, for any artist attempting a new version to find a fresh approach that might prevent predictability and redundancy from undermining the proceedings- and the audience’s interest in the outcome. In Švankmajer’s hands, however, the entire well-known saga is transformed into an audaciously non-traditional package of surprises, each one as delightful as it is disturbing, appropriately dark in tone but laced throughout with macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor, and loaded with the peculiar blend of the cinematic and the theatrical that gives this director a reputation for visual magic that is unlike the work of any other. A self-proclaimed surrealist, Švankmajer creates a movie that captures the peculiar flow of nonsensical logic one follows in a dream, making the experience of watching Faust feel thoroughly like a visit to the realm of the unconscious; he tells the story clearly and succinctly, but he does it through a deeply symbolic progression of seeming non-sequiturs, building a mass of perplexing puzzle pieces that fall seamlessly into place as the narrative resolves itself. By transposing the story deeply into a hallucinogenic reality in which rules of plausibility and common sense no longer apply, the director not only allows himself free use of arcane and metaphoric artistic conceits, he manages to frame his oft-told tale in such a way that every development seems completely new and unexpected, giving us the opportunity to discover its hidden meanings and significant themes by discovering them from an unfamiliar perspective.
That perspective, shrewdly, moves the Faust story out of the medieval past and into a milieu more relevant to a modern audience; Švankmajer doesn’t exactly update his drama, but rather rehearses it within a contemporary framework. Our protagonist is established from the outset as a decidedly present-day figure, emerging amidst a crowd of commuters from a subway station- just another anonymous drone. He is drawn into the web that will seal his fate by a pair of men passing out flyers on a street corner, a sight so mundane in our modern world we scarcely take notice; this, of course, sets up a recurring theme for Švankmajer, that of the mystical contained within the ordinary, a motif that manifests itself throughout the film and tempts us, like Faust, with the promise of secret wonders hiding just beneath the bland surface of our everyday lives. In our demystified era of utilitarian buildings and dehumanized masses, we long for the thrill of the unknown, a glimpse of something mysterious behind the mask of our predictable, well-ordered existence; such a revelation, however, is as unsettling as it is exhilarating, a source of terror as much as enlightenment, and therein lies the essence of Faust. To obtain the key to this secret world, we must be willing to sacrifice our very selves, to give up everything that defines us- our souls, if you will; for to be privy to the secret workings of the universe is to be torn irrevocably from our humanity, confronted with an absolute power that renders our previous understanding meaningless and dissolves our identity by shattering the precepts upon which we build our relationship with the world. In a modern age full of the smug assumptions and easy explanations derived from centuries of scientific exploration, the idea of an unseen order to things is perhaps even more terrifying than it was to our superstitious forefathers, whose imaginations conjured the tale of Faust to warn against delving too deeply into the hidden mysteries of life. They feared the cost of knowledge and worldly experience was the loss of the soul, but we who have embraced these things may be more frightened by the possibility that they were right. Švankmajer’s Faust, then, is about the rediscovery of the soul by modern man, and the disturbing notion that he has already sacrificed it.
That Švankmajer conveys all this in his movie is remarkable; but convey it he does, in a manner which gives testimony to his skills as an artist and a visual storyteller. How he does it, exactly, is beyond the power of words to describe, and at any rate is best left to be experienced firsthand. Suffice to say that, in order to bring our modern sensibility into the mystical world of his story, he takes us into the last remaining stronghold of magic, the realm of the theater. By trapping his protagonist into a re-enactment of an ancient text, not only does he provide the obvious metaphor of man’s fate being dictated by his repetition of the patterns of the past, he opens the door for his own use of all the tricks of the trade in the service of creating his goofy nightmare. Puppets, both life-sized and miniature, stand in for other characters- and occasionally, for Faust, too- and interchange with live actors; painted backdrops appear in naturalistic settings, and vice-versa, patently theatrical objects and occurrences manifest in the real world, and events move freely back-and-forth between the containment of the theater and the expanse of nature, underscoring Švankmajer’s dissolution of the boundary between reality and illusion; dialogue is recited, arias are sung, ballet dancers perform, and an audience observes the proceedings, though most of Faust’s key scenes take place “backstage,” at least ostensibly. Of course, the director’s familiar techniques of stop-motion animation are directly drawn from this theatrical background, and fit in seamlessly here- particularly effective is his claymation rendition of Mephistopheles, growing from a ball of clay into a vaguely humorous demonic face that then transmutes into a mirror image of Faust’s own appearance, giving us, once again, the mystical inside the familiar. Throughout the film, Švankmajer utilizes all these devices to draw us along on this metaphysical journey, using his surrealist tactics to provide cryptic images that simultaneously amuse and appall us- an egg baked inside a loaf of bread, a baby transforming into a skull, a severed leg wrapped in plastic, a puppet demon sexually assaulting a puppet angel, and countless other blasphemous delights- and, in the end, achieve their cumulative goal of revealing the film’s underlying mystery. It’s worth mentioning, too, that Švankmajer also indulges his usual fascination with food, offering us numerous important scenes that revolve around eating; he also provides his trademark, hallucinatory soundscape, a collection of rustling, scratching, rattling noises that crosses the sensory boundaries to make us feel the surfaces we hear- and creeps us out, in the bargain. The entire film, ultimately, has this effect- it’s something akin to visiting a haunted house at Halloween, in which we want to feel our skin crawl and our hair stand on end, but we want to giggle with glee over the pure silliness of it all.
Jan Švankmajer is something of a national treasure in his native Czechoslovakia, and rightly so. His visionary work, at once quirky and powerful, represents the kind of purely artistic sensibility that is rarely found in modern cinema; with the personal spirit of a true auteur, he makes certain his films are distinctly his own, and whether or not audiences respond is not his concern. Though much of his work has been rarely seen in the U.S., thanks to Cold War restrictions and prejudices that impaired his ability to distribute it on this side of the Iron Curtain (and, sometimes, even to produce it at all), he has gained a steady and growing following among fans of animation, surrealism, and cinema in general. His decidedly adult adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (simply titled Alice) is partly responsible for breaking him through into Western culture, but many of his other films- including this one- have been championed by critics and other filmmakers alike, and the ready availability of the digital age has now made it possible for almost anyone to partake of the disturbing delights he offers. Since Faust, like all of his films, is virtually impossible to describe- even stills fail to capture it, since Švankmajer’s visual sense is so connected to motion and juxtaposition of images- I strongly recommend a viewing. I can praise it all I want, but, ultimately, it’s a movie that speaks far more eloquently for itself.