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From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s Tetralogy of Power

Penelope Chatzidimitriou

My decision to discuss Alexander Sokurov’s famous tetralogy of power stems from my belief that theatre and theatre studies gain a lot from works of art produced in other genres[1]. This is particularly the case, I believe, when it comes to classical texts, that is, plays written centuries ago that to become relevant in the present ask for a different kind of light to be shed on them. In that sense, my mentality is very close to the Russian director’s view that as an artist he has mostly been influenced not by other filmmakers but literature[2] and classical music.

As for Sokurov, it is not accidental that he is drawn to the character of major historical figures like Hitler, Lenin and the Japanese emperor Hirohito. As he explains, his first degree was in history, thus the influence and interest in it is lifelong. Consequently, he cannot see Russian life as an aesthetic phenomenon per se. Regarding Faust, the legendary man who sold his soul to the devil to obtain ultimate power over things known and unknown in life, Sokurov’s attraction seems only natural for a man who is so concerned with what is good and what is evil in human nature. This is a motif often expressed in his interviews but I would rather quote from his documentary The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn where he admits: “I’d like to understand why the cruelty of man [my emphasis] is something I worry so much about”.

The man he confesses his concern about good and evil to is not insignificant. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the Russian Nobel laureate novelist and historian, the first to reveal the horrors of the gulag, the Soviet Union’s Siberian forced labour camps in his novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,written in 1962, and The Gulag Archipelago, published between 1973 and 1975. For his criticism against Stalin, he spent eight years in prisons and labour camps, three years in enforced exile whilst upon the publication of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago in the West, he was arrested and charged with treason. He was immediately exiled from the Soviet Union and settled down in the United States to return to Russia twenty years later, in 1994, thanks to the introduction of glasnost in the country in the late 1980s.

In that sense, it is intriguing that Sokurov seeks an answer from a man whose entire life has been marked by human evil and cruelty, embodied mainly in the face of the Soviet authoritarian regime. Equally interesting is Solzhenitsyn’s response that cruelty and kindness are the two extremes and that the whole spectrum of human nature should not be reduced to these[3]. Even the most infamous of Shakespeare’s villains, I would add, Richard III, finds ways to justify himself and thus be justified, at least in part.  However, as Solzhenitsyn writes in the opening chapter of The Gulag Archipelago “The imagination and strength of Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology… It is thanks to ideology that it fell to the lot of the twentieth century to experience villainy on a scale of millions”[4]. Obviously the discussion between the two Russians is not pure ontological and metaphysical reflection but reveals a historicized concern about “ubiquitous power”[5], set against the backdrop of 20th century history.

For both Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn evil is not an abstract notion but always has a face; it is personal, found in a man and caused by a man. In that sense, evil becomes a choice[6]. Each of Sokurov’s protagonists makes a choice. “At what price does a man choose to sell –or on the contrary, not to sell– his soul? That’s what these films talk about, most of all. And the consequences that ensue, of course”[7]. Thus, in the “idiosyncratic biographies” of Hitler (in Moloch, 1999), Lenin (in Taurus, 2001) and the Japanese Emperor Hirohito (in The Sun, 2005), the director turns his lens on their “shadowy inner lives”[8], indifferent to the myth that surrounds these emblematic tyrannical figures. Like the Shakespearean villains, Sokurov’s villains are humans stripped off their myth: the arrogant hypochondriac Hitler, the bedridden dying Lenin, and the disillusioned Hirohito are portrayed in grotesgue realism, which lacks any tragic overtones. Sokurov sees them as mere humans, places them in specific physical locations, narrow time spans and shoots crucial private moments of transition and transformation. As Nancy Condee notes, there is a close relationship between death, empire and culture in these films; they form the “conundrum” that “the political leader has been powerful but not immortal”, following the course of “acme, decline and transformation”[9]. By contrast, art, which may be vulnerable and weak within the milieu produced, typically asserts its everlasting nature in the long run.

Turning from history to art in his attempt to tackle the question of good and evil, Sokurov does not resort to Marx, Engel and Lenin’s favourite Shakespeare, and plays like Richard III or Macbeth, to complete his tetralogy, but to another pre-revolutionary classic of the Western canon and favourite of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, Goethe’s Faust. The final film of the tetralogy of power, Faust, sheds a different light on the historical villains of the 20th century, proving that in his quest for absolute knowledge and power the Enlightenment Everyman transformed the 20th century world history into a course of traumatic events. Ever since Shakespeare, literature has been attracted to such amoral creatures who have turned their back to God, rejecting thus the very axiomatic existence of good and evil. As Dostoevsky has asserted “If there is no God, everything is permitted”[10]. Nietzsche’s Death of God and Enlightenment’s praise and deification of man instead seem to have paved the way to a century of mass killings.

In the film, Faust is mainly surrounded by three bodies, Mephistopheles’ ugly face and monstrous body, Margarete’s angelic face and body and a faceless corpse. His adventure in knowledge and power actually starts from the dead faceless body with the camera focusing on the penis of this cadaver, being dissected by Faust. Faust, that is, is depicted as one that perpetuates this fascination with anatomy that had started to systematically develop in early modern times. The Cartesian separation of the body from the soul, and the consequent view of the body as a machine seem to befit Sokurov’s Faust who equally engages in a Cartesian exploration of identity. Like Rembrandt in his painting Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman, Faust searches for the seat of the soul in the interiority of a dead body: is soul to be found in the extracted heart, the long, dark, filthy entrails or the syphilitic inert penis[11]? Together with his assistant Wagner, they discuss the possible location of the soul. A little later, Wagner will say: “Good doesn't exist, but evil does”, foreshadowing the end of the film.

The juxtaposition of their living bodies vs a dead body, of life vs death, of the eloquence of life vs the silence of death, of the penis as a locus of desire and fertility and the cancellation of both at the sight of the impotent member of a deceased man, all these encapsulate what Sokurov’s Faust is about: death, culture and as we will immediately see empire. For Faust is not only a restless seeker of answers but penniless and starving. Yes, he is seeking for knowledge but he is equally seeking for food. Mephistopheles here is a moneylender, a “Shylock-like respectable usurer”[12], possibly an incarnation of the capitalistic evil in the reign of post-communist Russia. For soon enough, he will be transformed into “a grotesque, reptile-like asexual”[13] monster. Sokurov’s Mephistopheles follows the Christian tradition of the Satan being ugly, thus bearing God’s stigma and making his immorality visible. In fact, this Russian Mephistopheles is a monstrous body, unlike the ugly Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus or Goethe’s neatly dressed man. Sokurov does not even follow the example of Thomas Mann’s Mephistopheles, who is totally secular[14]. His Mephistopheles is a beast in the post Renaissance sense of the wondrous beings that are physically deformed. They are not treated with horror, they are not considered to be repulsive but they are approached with physica curiosa, that is they are intellectually stimulating[15].

On the contrary, Margarete, the young woman that fascinates Faust is not merely beautiful. Her self-illuminating, marble-like, white face is obviously designed to recall the typical idea of Beauty in Western art, which identifies Beauty with Goodness and sustains the doxa that God is light. Thomas Aquinas proposed that Beauty requires three things: proportion, integrity and claritas, i.e. clarity and luminosity[16], and Margarete is a diaphanous donna angelicata, an angel-like woman, an object of amorous passion that will never, however, be transformed into Dante’s Beatrice, that is “a path to salvation”, “a means of ascending to God”[17]. She cannot lead Faust to a higher degree of luminous spirituality; Faust wants it darker.

Faust is a latently cruel male: he is abusive, murderous, lecherous; this is a totally demystified, desecrated Faust, unlike Goethe’s, who may be seen as an example of Sokurov’s fondness for “studies of maleness: male strengths and weaknesses, male sentiments and rivalries, male sensitivity and violence”[18]. As mentioned beforehand, Faust “starts with a big close-up of a penis and scrotum […] and wades through a fragmentary, dispersed narrative in which a man ultimately discovers his inner Ubermensch”, the Nietzschean Superman, “trampling on other men and women along the way”[19]. Faust will even stone Mephistopheles to death.

The end of the film finds the two away from the labyrinth of the crowded town, in an uninhabited cultural and mythological no-man’s land.  Breaking his deal with the devil, Faust becomes the true absolute evil, ready now to be reborn as a “tyrant”, “a political leader”, “an oligarch”[20]. This is the tyrant of the future and unlike the typical pattern of “acme, decline and transformation” encountered in Moloch, Taurus and The Sun, Sokurov here depicts the way to “acme”. Faust is the opposite of the divine Hirohito, who had to learn to be a common mortal. In that sense, the harsh, volcanic landscape of the finale is the new territory to be conquered and not a sign of Faust’s ruination[21].

The finale was actually shot in Iceland, revealing Sokurov’s interest in “border zones”, that is, “marginal spaces and liminal states”, which involve geographical and historical settings, plots and the life experiences of many of his protagonists. Thus, Hitler in Moloch is not in Berlin but in his mountain retreat, Lenin in Taurus spends the last days of his life away from Kremlin in an estate at Gorki, Hirohito in The Sun prepares his speech of the renunciation of his imperial divinity in the final days of the Second World War[22], and Faust is about to start his new life as a Nietzschean Superman in the desolated landscape of the extreme Northern part of Europe. Geographical, historical and existential liminality is a recurrent motif throughout the whole tetralogy of power.

Concluding, the tetralogy of power and Sokurov’s appropriation of Goethe’s Faust reveals the director’s skepticism over a century of mass killing and violence that turned Enlightenment’s trust and hope in reason and man into despair, and transformed the world’s modern historic course into a chain of cultural traumas such as Auschwitz in Germany, the gulag in Soviet Union and the nuclear bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

 

Penelope Chatzidimitriou is a Doctor in Drama and Theatre Studies, affiliated with the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

 
 


[1] This article was first presented in the International Conference “Film Adaptation: Theory, Practices, Reception”, 25-27 May 2017, Thessaloniki, Greece, School of Film Studies and School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

[2] By the mid-1990s, Russian cinema had started reconsidering perestroika and the first post-Soviet years. This re-evaluation resulted in two different ideological trends. In the first, cinema distilled from the tradition of Russian classical humanist literature and its dissidents (Pushkin, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn etc.). Such filmmakers, driven by the values of Enlightenment and its belief in the inherent goodness and rationality of human nature, offered their version of humanism as an alternative to Soviet humanism. Still, Alexander Prokhorov suggests that the cinema of the major auteur filmmakers of the 1980s and 1990s, Aleksei German, Kira Muratova, and Alexander Sokurov, reveals a different, anti-Enlightenment trend in Russian culture. See A. Prokhorov, “From Family Reintegration to Carnivalistic Degradation: Dismantling Soviet Communal Myths in Russian Cinema of the Mid-1990s”, The Slavic and East European Journal 51 (Special Forum Issue: Resent, Reassess, and Reinvent: The Three R's of Post-Soviet Cinema), 2007, 272-294.                                                                          

[3] In A. Sokurov (dir.), The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, 1998.

[4] In M. Martin, “Review: A World on Two Fronts: Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag Archipelago”, The Russian Review 36, 1977, 46-63.

[5] A. Sokurov, “War Paint: Francophonia Director Alexander Sokurov Talks Art and Power”, interview to C. Gray, The Calvert Journal, 17th September 2015, http://calvertjournal.com/articles/show/4695/sokurov-interview-Francofonia-venice (accessed: 11/05/2017).

[6] A. Schmemann, “On Solzhenitsyn”, Communio 35, 2008, www.communio-icr.com/filesschmemann35-3.pdf, 479 (accessed: 11/05/2017). This essay first appeared in English in J. B. Dunlop, R. Haugh & A. Klimoff (ed.), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co 1975.

[7] A. Sokurov, “Interview with Aleksandr Sokurov”, interview to J. Szaniawski, Critical Inquiry 33, 2006, 27.

[8] M. Jenkins, “Alexander Sokurov: Seeking New Shadows in a Dark Classic”, film review, http://www.npr.org/2013/11/14/244538636/alexander-sokurov-seeking-new-shadows-in-a-dark-classic (accessed: 10/05/2017).

[9] N. Condee, The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press 2009, 167.

[10] M. D. Aeschliman, “Solzhenitsyn and Modern Literature”, 1990, https://www.firstthings.com/article/1990/08/007-solzhenitsyn-and-modern-literature (accessed: 12/09/2016).

[11] See J. Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture. New York: Routledge 1995.

[12] A. Jugum, “128. Russian Director Alexander Sokurov’s German Film Faust (2011): Reflecting on the Faust Syndrome in our Lives”, Movies that Make you Think, 07 May 2012, http://moviessansfrontiers.blogspot.gr/2012/05/128-russian-director-alexander-sokurovs.html (accessed: 23/05/2017).

[13] A. Jugum. “128. Russian Director Alexander Sokurov’s German Film Faust (2011): Reflecting on the Faust Syndrome in our Lives”.

[14] Ο. Έκο, Ιστορία της Ασχήμιας, μτφ. Δ. Δότση & Α. Χρυσοστομίδης. Αθήνα: Καστανιώτη 2007, 179-183.

[15] Ο. Έκο, Ιστορία της Ασχήμιας, 241-243.

[16] Ο. Έκο, Ιστορία της Ασχήμιας, 100.

[17] Ο. Έκο, Ιστορία της Ασχήμιας, 171.

[18] T. Rayns, “Film of the Month: Faust”, BFI Film forever, 29 April 2014, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-month-faust (accessed: 24 May 2017).

[19] T. Rayns, “Film of the Month: Faust”.

[20] A. Sokurov in A. Jugum. “128. Russian Director Alexander Sokurov’s German Film Faust (2011): Reflecting on the Faust Syndrome in our Lives”.

[21] T. Rayns, “Film of the Month: Faust”.

[22] J. Graffy, “Living and Dying in Sokurov’s Border Zones: Days of Eclipse”, in: B. Beumers & N. Condee (ed.), The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov. London & New York: I.B. Tauris 2011, 74-75.