Jan Svankmajer’s version of the Faust legend is certainly disturbing. But is it anything more? A Surrealistic combination of live action, stop motion animation and puppet theater, the film mashes together Marlowe and Goethe’s plays, a novel by Christian Dietrich Grabbe, a little of Gounod’s opera and Svankmajer’s own interpolations. So there is no lack of content. To what does it add up, though? Saturated with the seedy, down-at-heels griminess of post-Communist Prague, there is no obvious purpose beyond the unpleasantness.
Given the director’s involvement in Surrealist theater, perhaps discomfort is the purpose. Although the term “surreal” has been vulgarized to connote little more than “weird,” when practiced by a dedicated artist, Surrealism tries to reveal the unsettling everyday realities we normally ignore or suppress. When, for example, Faust (Petr Cepek) opens the door to his dingy flat and a rooster appears out of nowhere to fly into his face, there is nothing about the moment that couldn’t happen, any more than the guano left by the rooster is “unrealistic.” It is just because it could happen without warning or explanation that makes it disturbing.
The most “surreal” moments, however, are the animations. A ball of clay, for example, turns into a realistic sculpture of a newborn. When Faust inserts a fragment of paper with an incantation written on it into the “baby’s” mouth, the sculpture transforms again, aging until it takes the shape of a skull with maggots feeding in the eye sockets. Faust thankfully destroys the sculpture, but the queasiness lingers.
Surrealism was inspired by the dream theories of Sigmund Freud, based on the recognition of the emotional distortions resulting from sexual repression. With that point of origin, it is hardly surprising that Faust has no women in major parts. Even the Gretchen character in Goethe’s version is here made into a life-size wooden puppet—and not even that, really, since the puppet is “actually” Mephistopheles in drag. I cannot say how much this invention stems from the sources, but when Faust vomits at the realization he has been tricked into sex with a demon, it is thoroughly in keeping with the film’s atmosphere of barely contained libidinal horror.
There is some humor mixed with the nausea. A sleepy stagehand at the theater where Faust is being performed, for example, is constantly being roused to put out fires real and imagined. The puppet demons have a penchant for absurdist bickering that can be entertaining. And between it all, the “reality” is spiced with considerable dumplings, pastries, beer and wine that oscillate between tempting and revolting.
But again, to what purpose? No work of art is required to be pleasant or to provide new insight into a familiar legend. If nothing else, no one is likely to forget Svankmajer’s Faust. But then, if all the film is about is the ability to make us squirm, wouldn’t that be true regardless of the subject? I admit it: I don’t get it.