FaustJan Svankmajerpuppets
Medium: film
Year: 1994
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Writer: Jan Svankmajer, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Christian Dietrich Grabbe, Christopher Marlowe
Actor: Petr Cepek, Andrew Sachs [all the voices on the English dub]
Keywords: Faust, animation, puppets
Country: Czech Republic, France, UK
Language: Czech, Latin
Format: 97 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109781/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 24 January 2013
It's Jan Svankmajer's second feature film after his 1988 Alice in Wonderland. As might be expected from the man whose other (free) adaptations have included Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade, he's picked some dark material: Faust.
Being Svankmajer, he's then turned it into something that's recognisably the original story, yet also utterly unlike any normal conception of filmmaking. It's Brechtian, being so full of alienating devices that it's basically a gigantic lump of alienation. It's also modernist, absurdist and Kafka-esque (whose work is often like Svankmajer's and a fellow citizen of Prague). The film keeps kicking you in the shins and screaming "this isn't real", thanks to the following:
(a) the main character (Petr Cepek) walking into a theatre, putting on make-up and a costume and reading his Faust lines from a script he's got in front of him. It sounds Shakespearian, so I assume it's Marlowe'd version, although there's also a strong Goethe influence.
(b) Cepek cutting open the set and literally climbing into it
(c) no dialogue between two humans, but instead always removed from us via clay animation, Cepek performing in his theatre and/or man-sized versions of traditional wooden puppets. We even see the hands that are controlling them. There's no attempt whatsoever to present these as anything other than jangling, flappy-mouthed, waggly-armed wooden relics of 18th century ideas of entertainment.
(d) at one point Cepek even stops in mid-speech, picks up the script and reads aloud the lines that he'd forgotten.
(e) the audience applauding as we watch.
(f) a representation of a field in the theatre suddenly becoming a real field, complete with a tractor... but also the four ballerinas who'd been dancing in the theatre.
(g) an ultra-realistic mundane Prague setting. It's not like Svankmajer's Alice, where the lead character entered a weird world and stayed there. Here we're in a modern urban environment, with escalators, subways, shops and so on. People go to the pub. All this is shot in a flat documentary style, without the quick disorientating close-ups and obsessions one associates with Svankmajer. In other words, we're not being allowed to pretend to ourselves that the movie exists in a world where such absurdities can be real. There's actual reality too. We keep being shown it. It's indistinguishable from what's outside my window right now, as I type this. It's that world into which Svankmajer keeps inserting claymation heads, animal bone skeleton creatures and a clay baby in a jar.
(h) possible time travel, i.e. the tramp with the severed leg wrapped in newspaper.
Given all that, what's this freakish thing like to watch? Answer: it moves along surprisingly well. I wasn't clock-watching. It's certainly full of energy, while the story's so far removed from normal filmmaking that it won't occur to you to approach it conventionally. It feels hostile to humanity, with Cepek going through the entire movie without ever trying to have a relationship with a real person. He's silent for great swathes of the film, while often I wouldn't even call him a protagonist. It's more like watching a nature documentary. He's a bear or something, stomping through Prague without interacting with it. He opens door handles and so on. That's his limit. It's kind of fascinating.
The film has a kind of black wit, although you'd usually have to be Svankmajer to be amused. You might think this was technically a Satanist movie, but the only chicken we see runs out of Cepek's apartment when he opens the door and is seen flapping around outside and being chased by the locals. Meanwhile Cepek is sweeping chicken droppings off his carpet. There's no explanation of this. Similarly the most talkative character is a jester puppet, who's vulgar, fond of toilet humour and takes the piss even out of Mephistopheles. "I shall eat, dance and try not to fart." "Stupidity an advantage."
However I also liked the Faust-Mephistopheles stuff, taken straight from the original plays, legends and even folk renditions. Once we eventually get hit the devil's bargain, Svankmajer tackles it at a good lick and doesn't duck any of the material.
It works. It probably shouldn't, but it's hard not to be fascinated by these extraordinary layers being added to a classic original that's already heavy with ethical discussion. Besides, Svankmajer can fascinate and disturb you even with a quiet scene in which nothing happens. He has a surrealist's eye for close-ups, using intimate cinematic techniques with inappropriate subject matter (e.g. a hand putting rubbish in a bin) and then not giving your eyes enough time to process it properly. He'll throw in stuff like people outside the window who are about to remove their own eyes. It's a rich experience.
I'd call it a fascinating experiment, but I think that belittles it. It's not just an experiment. It's at once alienating, intellectually rich and entertaining. It has Svankmajer's usual obsessions (food, eating, death, etc.) and it's capable of making me squirm a tad even when all I'm looking at is a wooden puppet dipping a quill in its own blood. I'm going to be seeing more Faust adaptations, obviously including F.W. Murnau's in 1926, but I'll be astonished if any of them go further than this.