Jan Svankmajer’s Faust and the Folly of Control

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.

1 thought on “Jan Svankmajer’s <em>Faust</em> and the Folly of Control”

  1. Its relevance to augmented computer-generated virtual experience? Reality? SIEMENS AND THE INCESTMENT to save Africa?

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