Alexander Sokurov establishes the Grand Guignol tone of his “Faust” from the very start — with an extreme close-up of a corpse’s penis.
The ever-searching, overreaching Dr. Faust (Johannes Zeiler) and his Ygor-like assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) are elbow-deep in the entrails of a gamy cadaver, searching for the seat of the human soul. They come up empty, and Faust suddenly realizes that not only hasn’t he found the secret of the universe, he’s also broke and starving, which leads him into the clutches of the Mephistophelian moneychanger Mauricius (Anton Adasinsky). And that’s when Faust’s spiritual quest becomes a matter of life and death indeed.
Though this German legend has seen many adaptations (Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragedies, Thomas Mann’s novel, F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film . . . ), Sokurov’s “Faust” is a worthy addition and his most playful effort to date, even with his 1999 film “Moloch” featuring a fun-loving Eva Braun doing nude cartwheels. This “Faust” is a metaphysical buddy movie combining elements of Beckett, Buñuel, Bergman, and Monty Python. But despite the clever badinage and bawdy humor, it still exhales the stink and terror of the crypt.
Faust and Mauricius go a long way around the block before they arrive at the diabolical contract — the pact exchanging unlimited power, pleasure, love, and knowledge for the errant professor’s soul — that is the most familiar part of this story. Mauricius, whose skull-like head bobs on a body resembling a huge wad of chewing gum, joins Faust on a walking tour of the town, during which they take in the local squalor and discuss such theological fine points as whether the opening of John’s Gospel should be “In the beginning was the Word” or “In the beginning was the Deed.” The debate becomes moot when Mauricius points out the fair and innocent Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), a washerwoman with the face of a Raphael angel. Despite his objections to the contrary, it soon becomes clear that what Faust really is looking for is satisfaction for the body as much as for the soul.
Or are all such diversions merely, as the tragic, farcical figure of Mauricius laments, a futile attempt to fill the void, to find illusory solace in an eternity of solitude and pain? For clues to the answer you might check out the other three films in Sokurov’s “Men of Power” tetralogy: the aforementioned “Moloch,” about Adolf Hitler; “Taurus” (2001), about Vladimir Lenin; and “The Sun” (2005), about Japanese Emperor Hirohito. The Museum of Fine Arts has programmed these three films along with “Faust,” and it is still possible to catch screenings of “Moloch” and “The Sun.” It’s an opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers at the height of his powers.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.