Faust (1994)
By: Mr Intolerance on August 20, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Siren Visual (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0. 92 minutes
The Movie
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Starring: Petr Cepek
Screenplay: Jan Svankmajer
Country: Czech Republic
External Links
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The story of Doctor Johann Faust is an old cautionary tale from Germany, and has been told by many different authors over the last few hundred years, most notably by Christopher Marlowe in his play Doctor Faustus, and Goethe in his meisterwerk Faust (brilliantly filmed as a live stage performance with the inimitable Bruno Ganz in the title role). There have been interesting riffs on the tale, say the German World War 2 epic Mephisto starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, or F.W. Murnau's classic silent version, but all of them get down to the same basic tale – a fella who's spent his whole live-long life being good but then decides one day that he wants more, and quite literally sells his soul to the devil in order to achieve it. In the original tale Faust, the good Doctor, wants the whole kit and caboodle: sex, drugs and rock'n'roll (or at least the medieval equivalent thereof), gets them, and when he tries a bit of the old death-bed recantation, the arch-fiend gets a bit pissed off, takes his soul and leaves the horrendously mutilated body rotting on a pile of garbage as a lesson for those who'd like to try the same low-down rat-fink trick.

Jan Svankmajer, the Czech director of this film has a unique approach to filming, to say the least. Svankmajer uses real actors, stop motion animation, marionettes, puppets and then even more disturbingly, life-sized puppets. Now, if you've seen any of his films before, say, his adaptation of the Czech fairytale Otanesek (Little Otek), or his mind-buggering riff on Lewis Carroll's The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland (Alice), you're probably thinking, "Yeah, seen it all before." No you bloody well haven't, and don't get cocky with me. Faust is Svankmajer's most unique and disturbing film. Black, loaded with graveyard humour and descending into evermore grim spirals of bleakness and the sinister, Faust packs one hell of a wallop.

We begin the film with a montage of images of the devil and various demons from a range of various medieval woodcuts interspersed with images of people emerging from the modern day underworld, the subway, in this instance, in Prague. Our Faust (the wonderfully weather-beaten Petr Cepek - instead of an alchemist or other high-falutin' figure, in line with his times, he's an Everyman, like you and me – anyone, it seems, can lose their souls these days) ascends from the depths to the surface, and is handed a rather indiscriminate map by one of many vaguely sinister people he'll meet along his travels.

He discards the map (representing guidance? Religion?) and proceeds home to be confronted at his own front door by a black rooster (a creature with voodoo, if not other occult significance), which has shat itself all over his rather dingy apartment. As he sits down to a rather ordinary meal, he sorts through his mail only to find another of these mysterious maps. At the same time he discovers an egg inside the loaf of bread he's been eating from, but upon opening it, finds nothing, but unleashes a storm that makes the furniture in his apartment whirl about the place like a mad bastard.

Ah, yes, I should have explained: Svankmajer likes his films on the absurd side, to put it mildly – he's that rare director, the surrealist who makes entertaining and intelligent films.

We get the impression that our Everyman – let's just call him Faust – is not in full control of his own actions. Outside his apartment, the two vagrants who were handing out the maps have the rooster and pull out some rather disturbing contact lenses from their eyes. We don't get to see what they were covering, but something is not what it should be. Already this is different to the parent texts (any of them), whereby Faust has free-will and can choose as he pleases – that's what separates us from the rest of God's creations – here he's being railroaded into badness in a Kafka-esque way. I guess it's worth pointing out that Svankmajer rather obviously lived under totalitarian rule, and I think it's coming out in his films round about here (not surprising, seeing as how under Communist rule he wasn't allowed to show his films, their being rather subversive on many levels, banned from doing so from 1972).

Faust goes out the next day to try to locate an area indicated on the map. The city is dirty and grimy, and everything seems somehow broken – this is a trope common to Svankmajer's films. There's never anything shiny and clean – everything is decayed, decrepit, rotten. This would overtly appear to be a statement about life in Communist Czechoslovakia, but is possibly also making some kind of statement about humanity generally. We're a decadent breed, and want wonders because our own existence is so bleak and lacklustre, even at an expense we simply can't afford to pay. He finds himself in a theatre and rather inexplicably, after finding a copy of Goethe's Faust, dons some rather tatty-looking magician's robes which happen to be lying about. I guess again, that the aspiration to have what has been denied you since birth, to be unhappy with your lot can indeed damn you via jealousy.

Faust finds the rest of the costume and make-up, reads a few lines, and that's it – he's fucked! Through this symbolic act of hubris he has condemned himself to go through the motions of the character – a person who feels they've been denied the goodness of life, and who's never felt that?! This is showing us the self-perpetuating cycle of such thoughts. And so he's called to the stage.

The metaphors keep coming thick and fast – Faust is going to be forced to perform his role in front of an audience on stage, whether he's ready or not. If I have to draw the parallels with modern life for you, I'm going to pack up and go home. To call him unwilling is to do him a disservice – he tries to scarper and distance himself from the role, but he's trapped as we all are. There's no escaping the inevitable, after all. It seems that no matter which way he turns, he's locked into the Faust role, and that even his smallest action seems to reiterate this.

Through the simple act of breathing on a fire (God's breath of life?) in an alchemical laboratory, he creates a homunculus, thus exercising black magic skills, despite having breathed so in such an arbitrary fashion – it just happened. Again, the link between the ancient and the modern is established – what is insignificant now held great significance then, and we're being tarred with the same brush as our ancestors. Strictly speaking, I don't really see this as fair. That, I suppose, is part of the point that Svankmajer is making. Either that, or a point about the nature of our very existence being arbitrary, a la Frankenstein's monster in Mary Shelley's novel – shit happens, we didn't ask for it, and now somehow, we have to deal.

As with any creation, Faust has to give his creation the power of life, and oddly enough he does so in a way reminiscent of the way in which the Golem is given life – via a spell on paper being forcibly inserted into it, albeit with a knife. The creation displeases its master, who equally arbitrarily disowns and destroys it – possibly a comment on the nature of religion, or more explicitly our relationship with God.

Then a giant angel's head comes rolling down a hill, connects itself with a life-sized marionette's body and tells Faust to not be a silly bugger and give this shit up. You read that right, This is exactly the point where this film takes a left turn into "What-the-Fuck'sville". We see the hands operating the angel, but never the full aspect of the controller – again, a pretty obvious metaphor.

And then, predictably enough, a giant devil's head rolls down a hill, connects to a life-size devil doll, and tempts Faust to fuck some shit up and do black magic badness. And, it's the same hands doing the controlling – oooh, the symbolism… Now, the devil here makes loads of silly noises, and is well basically a more than vaguely ridiculous character – I guarantee you won't be laughing at him by the end of this film.

The life-sized marionettes are more than disconcerting. They are actually quite disturbing. And not just the devils and the angels, the servants, too. Even with Andrew Sachs' silly voices, there's just simply something wrong about them. They make me feel unnerved for reasons I can't articulate. And again with the servant puppets, it's the same puppeteer – this is definitely a metaphor for God (or possibly some other authority figure – although I'll be fucked if I can work out who), and presenting a modern levelling view of God's thrall over us all. We are the same as the beings we used to think of as our superiors, given our more secular viewpoint, perhaps?

Faust meets up with the two vagrants again, who give him a bag full of stuff to damn himself with, and then it's conjuration time for all A magic circle, a robe, a grimoire, a censer and a cat o'nine tails. There's a quick riff on Disney's The Sorceror's Apprentice, then Mephistopheles finally turns up – most uncool. Faust finds himself in some rather odd places (on top of a rather unforgiving mountain, for one – basically subject to the four elements, one after another), and in some difficult physical places – which is nothing to what his immortal soul is going to be feeling…

And so Faust enters into the pact we're all familiar with – earthly pleasures for the soul. If you believe in such a thing, it's never the smartest bargain to make.

Meanwhile, his puppet servant has some slapstick fun with the various demons from hell, which I must admit was tremendous fun the first time I saw it, but is less and less funny, and more and more tiresome every time I watch it – it just comes across as filler, and not especially interesting filler at that.

Faust follows a hobo to a restaurant, largely because the hobo is carrying a disembodied human leg., is served a large plate of dumplings by one of our now almost certainly Satanically motivated vagrants, and more weirdness ensues. Jeez, and we haven't even got to the ballerinas yet…

Oh, speak of the devils, here they are! Just when Faust had thought he'd had a moment's breather – WRONG! Now he's got to appear in a ballet version of Faust, which was a new one on me, I must say. Things get more than slightly ridiculous for a while. I'll let you discover how. Ballerinas, rakes and soup? What?!

It's from this point on that I have to exhort you to watch the film, because with a substantial amount of film left, there is some weirdness on display – angel puppets being raped by devil puppets being at the top of my list. The soul-stealing, it's getting closer! But I'll be damned (no pun intended) if I'll be giving any fucking spoilers away! Let me just tell you that the whole story plumbs existential depths a la Sartre, but with a greater sense of black humour, and poetic justice. And this is where the puppets get really fucking scary. And it's where my synopsis ends…

As a post-modern pastiche of the various stories of Faust, this is a real beaut. Hmmm…superlatives to sum up – blackly funny, grim, witty, clever – an extraordinary film, to put it mildly, Faust is truly an amazing piece of work. Svankmajer is a genius.
The full frame 4:3 presentaion is picture is good enough, but there is room for improvement. That said, the picture is a damn sight better than on my Kino R1 version.
I was hoping that unlike the Region 1 Kino copy I already had, I'd get an original Czech language soundtrack with English subs, the way I first saw it on SBS many moons ago, but no – it's still the same dubbed version with Andrew Sachs (yes, that's right, Manuel from Fawlty Towers) doing all of the voices. Annoying, and it jars you right out of the film. At least there isn't very much dialogue.
Extra Features
Bugger all. Not a bloody sausage.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Look, it's a bloody fantastic film – when the fuck will it get a decent release? I own two, and they're both dreadful packages. The original soundtrack version is out there – would it be so hard to put together a subtitled release given that we already have the translation with the dubs? Somebody simply isn't trying.

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