The Faustian bargain, a tale older than your favorite grandparent, is by this point a story so well covered and re-interpreted and remixed by multiple adaptations in different medias that works have now just thrown the story itself away and just kept its general themes of “biting off more than you can chew” and “hey, making deals with demons is a bad idea” and placed it into other stories. However, even with a moral play that’s been run to the ground, even by the time the futuristic 1990’s rolled around, acclaimed Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer took on the account of a proud doctor facing snootily off against the forces of Satan himself and made it into a truly unique film experience.
To clear the air, I myself have never actually consumed any straight up FAUST materials, whether that be the play composed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or the novel by Christian Dietrich Grabbe or any of the other iterations throughout the centuries. Instead, going into this film I knew only the basic tenet of an arrogant man making a deal with a devil, and just going off that conceit Svankmajer himself seems to keep things accurate to the works of Grabbe and Goethe but with a slightly fourth wall breaking (and entering) bend. Set in modern times (ie 90’s Prague), we open on a normal enough looking man (Petr Cepek) walking about his day; that is, until he receives a map from some random street hagglers (the delightfully mischievous Jan Kraus and Jiri Suchy) which leads him to an isolated building that houses what appears to be some kind of theater production of the tale itself, FAUST . At its outset, Svankmajer’s film holds an uneasy air, tinted with a hint of demonic humor which is backed even further by the aloof initial muteness of Mr. Cepek’s seemingly uncaring character, who merely brushes off initial weird events like roving chickens in his apartment or the pair of street hagglers, now with whited out eyes, staring at him from outside.
In this beginning quarter, FAUST is a movie one must succumb to to enjoy. It operates on its own strange pace (indeed repeating scenes and lines at points to comedic and languishing heights) and as a result, isn’t afraid to leave doubters in the dust of its weird aspirations. But if you do hop on for the ride, FAUST eventually becomes a hell of a good time as Cepek’s character is quickly whisked into the starring role of a coked out stage adaptation of the Faust story as the play’s protagonist, the arrogant Dr. Faust who looks to understand the world’s mysteries by making a deal with Satan and his demons. From there, the film flips from stage renditions of the play itself — a world populated by Svankmajer's patented imagery of giant puppets representing the play’s characters — to Cepek’s tumblings “backstage” — which is populated by Svankmajer's other patented imagery of unsettling stop motion creations — as the lines of the “stage” and “backstage” worlds begin to blur closely together. As it tangles between whatever weird “reality” Svankmajer established in the film’s first few minutes and that of the fantastically dark world of the Faust story, FAUST eventually establishes its own wholly unique and off-kilter world.
As its anchor, Cepek does fine work here, ably tap dancing between moments of intended melodramatics and dry humor. As his “partner”, as the unseen narrator and literal puppet master of the film and “show” itself, Svankmajer himself does good work too, throwing himself into multiple (silly) voices of different characters while still maintaining a smug omnipotence over the “play” and the film itself. Outside of its intriguing approaches to themes found in Faustian moral plays and the blending of reality and fiction, FAUST excels at being a fun ride of imagination. The puppetry and stop motion on display is a feat of creation and execution enhancing the strange, sometimes frightening and sometimes funny world of Svankmajer's film with images of demons and clay babies, sticking in an audience’s head long after the credits. The film occasionally falls into some pretentions, throwing images and scenes that occasionally slog in the name of artistic liberty, but outside of those moments FAUST ably blends uncommon humor and visuals while still somehow staying true to its source material.
I don’t even know if I fully “get” what FAUST was going for but you know what? Even if I sit slack jawed, I can’t deny the ride wasn’t a good and strange time. While it ultimately sticks to its ages old conclusion of comeuppance, it’s refreshing to see a film take a well worn journey and mold it into a befuddling near-masterpiece of interpretation. As far as I’m concerned this is now the end all, be all of FAUST interpretations…can’t wait to see what Grabbe and Goethe and many others brought to the table in their own works.