FilmJuice have my review of Alexander Sokurov’s Faust.
Like many people, my first contact with the work of Alexander Sokurov was his 2002 film Russian Ark. Filmed in the Winter Palace and shot in one long continuous take, Russian Ark presents itself as a journey through Russian history. Visually striking and technically flawless, the film is a brilliant exercise in cinematic logistics as Sokurov does not just produce an entire film in a single shot, he also stage-manages hundreds of extras in real time with absolutely no room for error.
Much like Russian Ark, Faust is both visually and technically impressive:
Shot amidst narrow streets using a very narrow aspect ratio, Sokurov fills the screen with extras to the point where the film’s main characters struggle to be seen and heard. Hemmed in on all sides by people and buildings, Sokurov’s Faust withdraws into a world of ideas only to be shocked and horrified by his resulting distance from human concerns. The self-destructive nature of Faust’s psychological exile is made all the more clear through a series of allusions to great works of art which, despite their considerable beauty, are entirely lost on the self-absorbed Faust.
Based on the well-known and often-revisited story of a Renaissance scholar who sells his soul to the devil only to discover his soul’s true worth, Sokurov’s Faust presents the character as a bored intellectual who is so detached from the world that he literally would not know what to do with unlimited power were he to receive it. Much like Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Sokurov’s creation acquires neither wisdom nor morality alongside his satanic powers.
Much like Russian Ark, Faust is the product of a man with amazing technical skill and very little to say. As I said in my review of Russian Ark, his films are lifeless collages of beautifully rendered images. Affectless to the point of absolute sterility, Sokurov is a gifted cinematographer needlessly elevated to the role of director.
Let us begin in the manner in which we intend to continue : By considering a point of medieval philosophy. The 14th Century Logician William of Ockham once noted that entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. This venerable principle of ontological parsimony is most often wheeled out in order to see off the speculations of some of our more extravagantly theological or mystical co-humans. Those who would wish into existence a vast metaphysical infrastructure where competing theories would make do with the smallest of particles and the most elementary of forces. Given a set of facts, why would you not choose the explanation that accounted for those facts in the simplest manner? In order to answer this question, we must first ascertain what constitutes simplicity.
The problem is that simplicity is one of those slippery terms that philosophers wheel out when an impasse is reached. When discussing a philosophical theory, differing thinkers will first look for logical inconsistencies, then for factual incongruities, but eventually they will fall back upon a host of rather subjective and nebulous aesthetic principles : “It is counter-intuitive!” they will sniff. “That solution is unclean when compared to the alternative” they will remark. “It is insufficiently simple” they conclude. Of course, this is a cynical and simplistic characterisation of the problem. Theorists of Artificial Intelligence such as Ray Solomonoff and Marcus Hutter have made great strides in devising mathematical and statistical models of ontological parsimony fleshing out that which has, for far too long, been a refuge for intellectual scoundrels. My assessment, however, does raise an interesting question.
Is simplicity culturally relative? Following Ockham, we demand that extraordinary claims be supported by extraordinary amounts of evidence but what this often means is that unpopular and dissenting opinions have to work harder to gain traction.
Consider, for example, Zhang Yimou’s film Hero (2002). At the end of the film, the protagonist refrains from killing the tyrant because he has seen the wisdom of a state where the value of political harmony and a single driving vision outweigh the benefits to be gained from the competition of differing opinions. In other words, Zhang Yimou seemed to be suggesting that a one-party state such as modern China was preferable to the democratic states of the West. When the film was released in the West it was met with howls of outrage. Given that the film was partly funded by the Chinese government, many Western thinkers characterised it as propaganda. But why is offering a different opinion seen as being tantamount to propaganda? Hundreds of films every year express opinions in the same unrigorous manner as Hero without being labelled as such. Is it just that when it comes to arguing against democracy, we set the bar higher? Do we demand extraordinary evidence before we are willing to engage with contrary opinions? Should we be more forgiving of dissenting opinions even when we see them as monstrous?
Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is three things : Firstly, it is a love letter to the Winter Palace (now occupied by the Russian state Hermitage Museum). Secondly, it is a technical exercise in so far as it is a film made up of one continuous 96 minute long take. Thirdly, it is a wistful apologia for the Tsarist regime.
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