Dissecting a cadaver at the start of Aleksandr Sokurov's methodically balmy Faust, the impoverished and miserable Doctor Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler) yanks a heart from the chest cavity like a leg of lamb. Asked by his slavish, apparently unhinged assistant, Wagner (Georg Friedrich), where to look for the human soul, the middle-aged misanthrope hisses, "There's only rubbish in there," as the body is raised on a slab, its guts spilling out in an unholy mess. A free adaptation of Goethe's dramatic poem, the tone of this version of the inexhaustible legend leans toward grotesque comedy from the start, the grimly funny kind that hardly ever seeks laughter. (The opening effects shot descending from the heavens to the mountain-village setting, followed by the gruesome autopsy, is as Jan Svankmajer-like as anything in Svankmajer's Faust from 1994, though on a bigger budget.) While the world Sokurov creates for the existential dance between his antihero and the weaselly pawnbroker Mauricius Müller (Anton Adasinsky), who's indisputably the Devil, rocks with hubbub (nearly everyone is broke, hungry, and getting in each other's way), its narrative commotion ultimately serves to obscure theme and character, even in such a literary warhorse.
Zeiler's Heinrich, his brow permanently knit and pondering the point of life in brooding voiceover, gets no comfort from his father, a physician whose quackery extends to stretching townsfolk on a rack and molesting a willing lady under the guise of gynecology. The younger Faust is left vulnerable to the animated doubletalk of the gnarled Müller, even after the lender rejects his pawn of a philosopher stone: "Life has declined in value." On a marathon walk the pair takes, Faust intermittently attempts to learn what he can get out of his budding relationship with Satan; Wagner draws him aside to advise that he himself is 150th on Müller's waiting list for dealmaking, and that while good doesn't exist on Earth, evil does. Briefly encountering the grande dame of Death (Hanna Schygulla), who spouts similarly nihilstic aphorisms, Faust is thunderstruck in a mammoth laundry court by the virginal Margarete (a porcelain-like Isolda Dychauk) with a love that never moves beyond abstraction, but is complicated by his accidental fatal stabbing of her brother in a chaotic tavern mob.
Sokurov's aesthetic template includes his familiar use of tracking, often in front of Faust and Müller as they traverse the local dirt roads and then the outlying hills in pursuit of Margarete and her watchful mother. He employs many extreme wide angles that diminish all mortals, climactically in an underworld tableau of wilderness and geysers that make the Devil and his bonded property seem like characters in a Beckett landscape of deprivation. The soundtrack, in addition to the classically based score, is filled with the babble of the villagers' hurly-burly. But Sokurov seems to overextend this busyness with inscrutable choices like slanting seemingly random shots diagonally with distorting lenses throughout. And when Faust and his beloved fall into a lake together a la L'Atalante, it's a jarring homage in a work that's miles from Jean Vigo's style and sensibility.
Around when Faust took the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, Sokurov was quoted as saying his primary interests are literary rather than cinematic, and while much of his previous work undercuts that claim, here he seems to have a point. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography, in muted tones of gray and sickly green, enforce the aggressively chilly ambience of this remixed classic, right through Faust's violent rebellion against his dark master. But more often the total effect is of a critical treatment of all the Fausts that have come before, from Goethe and Marlowe to the movie age, and Sokurov's more bewildering flourishes may rest on being steeped in that centuries-long sequence of adaptation and evolution. It'd be cheap, and inaccurate given the filmmaker's palpable commitment, to say his Faust has no soul, but though its ballast of jokes and spectacle are formidable, it often lurches about at a remote, enigmatic distance.