Jan SvankmajerFaustpuppets
Johanes Doktor Faust
Medium: short film
Year: 1958
Director: Emil Radok
Writer: Jaroslav Novotny, Emil Radok
Puppeteer: Jan Svankmajer [among others]
Actor: Karel Richter
Keywords: Faust, animation, puppets
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 17 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2351255
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 20 November 2013
It's the first film Jan Svankmajer ever worked on. He's neither the writer nor the director, instead having been hired as a recent graduate of the Prague drama school's puppetry department. (This is a puppet film.) Svankmajer and the director Emil Radok apparently hit it off, leading to the two of them working together in the 1960s and even writing several film scripts together (now lost). Svankmajer always regarded Radok as a key mentor and even today is still proud of this film, calling it one of the best marionette films ever made in Czechoslovakia.
It's interesting. I liked it.
The most obvious thing is its theatricality. It takes place on a stage with cloth backdrops. Radok makes a point of showing us the puppeteers' hands. There's no attempt at mimesis. All the dialogue is done as part of the narration and the puppets are essentially moving illustrations, not actors. It ignores all normal ideas of cinematic storytelling. When Faust's doing his tricks for the King of Portugal, it's not even clear what's going on when the devil shows up.
However at the same time, it's cool. The Faust story lends itself well to this almost medieval pageantry of good vs. evil. You can portray dichotomies with girls and devils. Faust choosing between good and evil is done in a flamboyant visual way that has nothing to do with how you'd do it with actors.
It builds. The second half is better than the first. The bit where the puppet's eyes turn into lamps is clever, after which the head-lamp people take us into outright surrealism. You can see why Svankmajer admired Radok and loved this film. Lamps grow hands and float among disembodied heads.
At the same time, though, there is storytelling. When Faust wants to repent, Radok does the scene with a skull, a naked girl painting (crude and medieval, not pornographic), a crispy black devil who looks as if he's been burned up in the oven and the Faust puppet knocking things down and kneeling before a picture of Jesus. This is nifty. No problem telling what's going on. Finally, of course, Radok gets to have fun with Mephistopheles's eventual claiming of Faust's soul. There's the set flying off into space, a black void and eventually puppet dismemberment. The pieces lie there. Now it's just the bits of a broken puppet.
It's impressive, I think, especially for 1958. It's even in colour, which surprised me. It's Brechtian in its use of devices like the puppeteers' hands pouring water on their burning props, while also being visually inventive in its surrealism and set-pieces. It proudly tells us that it's performed with puppets made by old families of puppeteers. It also tells the Faust story well. It gets through it very nicely in its 17 minutes, I think, managing to feel exactly the right length.
It's also a cool Svankmajer film, even though it's arguably a bit of a stretch to call it one. Significantly, in 1994 he chose to do another, longer puppet version of Faust for his second feature film. You can find it on the BFI's DVD collection of Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films, because an entire bonus film is typical of the level of extras you get from the BFI. Well worth a spin.