Jan Švankmajer, 1994
35mm, 97 Minutes
In Czech/Latin with English subtitles
Ed Atkins, 2015
HD-Video, 22 Minutes
Alas, philosophy I have explored,
as well as medicine and law;
add to these, regrettably,
my studies in theology.
Yet here I sit, a foolish bore,
no wiser than I was before.
No dog can live like this;
knowledge gained is far from bliss.
So I resolve my soul to free
through blackest magic and dark alchemy.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil“
I do believe that man is, in a certain way, determined. I am convinced that we are still manipulated: by the stars, by our genes, by our repressed feelings, by society, its education, advertising – repression of all kinds.
For what it’s worth, “Faust” is my favourite film. Pretty much everything I’ve ever made that’s of any merit has pilfered something from it.
I was already familiar with Švankmajer when I first saw “Faust”. I was about fourteen. Švankmajer was something of a star in our house, with his “Alice”, “Food” and “Dimensions of Dialogue” on heavy rotation for years, gleaned from late-night Channel 4 programming on long-playing VHS tapes many times overwritten. Švankmajer survived the general roundelay of recording and rerecording and was a unanimous favourite, remaining a name and a reference I thought exclusive to my family till I got to London and art college.
“Faust” is “Faust”, of course, and inasmuch as Švankmajer’s version still functions parabolically, it certainly reiterates the explicit warnings concerning hubris, greed, etc. This time Faust is conspicuously passive, more inadvertent conscript than delusional intellect – a man suckered without much difficulty or desire. As ever with Švankmajer, satire of specifically Czech – and more generally European – society is pretty powerfully present, in the story of course, though more saliently – and certainly more thrillingly for me – within the form. Švankmajer is a master of stop-frame animation, and it’s his understanding of the medium as both sensational and allegorical method that really, I think, defines “Faust”’s singularity. By animating both clay and people alike, by literalising the puppeteering of Mephistopheles and by objectivising Faust, Švankmajer renders everything terrifically uncanny and felt. Every movement is laboured, and the illusion of animation is made structurally available through misapplication – its heretical use on living bodies – turning life into some horrible, base manipulation.
I find the sound throughout “Faust” astonishing. Švankmajer’s foley is uniquely intimate and simultaneously distancing; like the animation it’s a kind of caricature, a parody to puncture transcendentalism, so that whatever morality defines our familiarity with Faust is repurposed as a kind of materialist critique, albeit theatricalised mercilessly. Even when the action is conventionally filmed, the sound – as well as a Bressonian kind of camera attention – insists on the artifice of the image, its manipulation. Everything here is openly controlled, and at every level. The lesson, perhaps, is simply to be wary of determinism of all kinds – though the feeling, the quease, is permanent and deeply liberating. Whatever space Švankmajer opens up in “Faust” – whatever feelings he has afforded me – is something I have always strived for.