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Faust (Jan Svankmajer & Ernst Gossner) 1994


    I suppose the first question any auteur must have when adapting to the screen a venerable text like Goethe’s Faust or Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus might be “Why?” What is it that makes a story that’s several centuries old speak to modern audiences? Jan Svankmajer’s answer to this dilemma is to deconstruct the myth to such a degree that his adaptation begins to function as much as a meditation on the function of the morality tale as a recounting of the story. Set in modern day Prague, Svankmajer’s updating of the legend has all of the elements of his usual films. There are dirty sets and grungy puppets, repetitive, inane routines and disgusting scenes showing the characters as they eat. Svankmajer’s Doctor Faust is a nameless everyman (Peter Cepek) who follows a map given to him anonymously on the street to a strange theater where he assumes the mantle of Faust. We watch him apply makeup and put on Faust’s costume, as he assumes the role, and before being called to the stage he takes the time to practice his lines. On his way to the stage he sees actors preparing for their roles, and puppets as they use the restroom. Upon seeing his audience, however, he becomes reticent to step into the role and cuts through the scenery to escape.


    What begins as a relatively straightforward Brechtian blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality continues to grow more complicated as the film continues.  The most superficial distancing effects, such as the cut to a wagging sheet of metal whenever thunder claps on stage or the intermission scene in which we watch the audience take a break from the play to get refreshments, belie the director’s greater purpose in using them. Svankmajer pays homage to the plays many incarnations while telling his tale. As the story plays out, he uses cinema, stage play, puppetry, ballet, and opera to tell it. By doing this, Svankmajer is simultaneously reminding us that it’s only a story that we’re watching while underlining the enduring qualities of that story. It’s comical then, while watching a puppet show which plays out his dilemma, Cepek’s everyman scoffs at the angel’s warning before a mock Faust signs his pact in blood. Svankmajer turns this condescending reaction to this morality play as a cautionary tale, however. Since the Faust myth has become so ingrained into Western culture, it’s tough for a modern citizen to take it seriously, but the director argues that it still is relevant, even as he acknowledges its theatricality. The film’s structure is composed so that it stresses the revolving cycle of events that cause this story to repeat itself, and thereby make it significant to modern audiences. The great irony here is that the subject’s willingness to ignore all warning signs seems to be part of the sequence, yet the story continues to be told. Svankmajer often deconstructs his movies in this way, and it’s not always as enlightening as you might hope, but it also disarms any criticism that his puppetry is obviously fake, and makes audiences willing to sit through stories that they’ve already heard. His Faust is a bit too detached to be truly disturbing or emotionally affecting, but perhaps that’s because we’ve already been numbed to the story through repetition.


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Jeremy Heilman