The devil on strings in Svankmajer's Faust.
The ideas expressed in the story of Faust never get old and seem to grow more relevant with time. Originally brought to the stage by Christopher Marlowe, the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil, both tricked into it by the demon Mephistopheles and by his own hubris, has enjoyed a long shelf life. All of the arts have found a treasure trove of narrative possibilities: from Goethe’s classic poem, F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film, to the tale of bluesman Robert Johnson at the Crossroads, the legend has become one of the most recognizable and durable myths. It speaks to our pride and our fears, and comes right down to a question of free will.
In Jan Svankmajer’s 1994 retelling, this animation genius and surrealist creates a world of shifting realities, one which illustrates that we create our own destruction. Our vices are not imposed on us, but rather are summoned forth by us. A tired Czech everyman is handed a map at a train station, one that leads him to a theater where he is offered the opportunity to choose his own fate. He does so by both acting out the story of Faust on stage and in his “real” life.
From there the disorientation begins, for the viewer as well as for him. He finds an egg in a loaf of bread; clay toys suddenly melt into an aging clay version of our hero; a geyser of wine spurts from a table when this Faust pulls a cork out it at a café run by the guy who handed him the map in the first place. Our antihero seeks pleasure and mastery over a strange world in which there doesn’t seem to be much of either.
This sense of irony was abundant in Eastern and Central European art under Totalitarianism, an era when the individual’s options for freedom lay in the imagination or in a secret rebellion. Svankmajer exploits that mood with genius. His style is fueled both by the aesthetic of traditional Surrealism and by the Kafkaesque daily life that countries like his native Czech Republic endured under Communism (then, naturally, Czechoslovakia). The stress of life in a totalitarian state, the absurdity and disconnect between language and action, is an apt setting for a retelling of Faust. The choice for Svankmajer's protagonist is between personal freedom or a life lived in surrender to the status quo.
Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer
That both God and the Devil are here depicted as puppets, powerful yet capable of being manipulated by other puppets—including a small, ball-busting jester—adds to the feeling of dread and absurdity of the choices at Faust’s disposal. Using claymation and stop animation, Svankmajer’s visual effects walk a line between endearing and menacing. We watch with awe and dread as shapes change form and disrupt live-action photography appearing immediately beforehand. Likewise, the puppets too are chilling. With their strings and the hand manipulating them visible, the puppets reveal artifice behind the action and suggest Faust’s complicity. The hands working the puppets of angels and demons may be God’s or the Devil’s, but each is empowered by Faust's original intentions. Is the struggle to control one’s own destiny, with all its possible concessions to good and evil, nothing more than an internal wrestling match? While this may seem to be a tired question, Svankmajer hints that things are no more settled in heaven or in hell.
This everyman Faust follows the path of his classic predecessors. He opts for the good life and for power over his soul, but is quickly bored and wants to see heaven before his time is up. His abrupt “victory” over the Devil is questionable. After losing control, the Devil merely moves on to the next fool who would take one of those maps and chase dreams of having power over fate.
This bizarre classic breathes new life into a myth frequently employed to explore human desire, folly, and frailty. Svankmajer’s deft mix of stop-motion animation, puppetry, and live action adds depth to this exploration as it does to the art of filmmaking.
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