Never has the story of Dr. Faust been told with such world-bending surrealism and cinematic finesse as in Jan Švankmajer’s (“Alice”) 1994 film, “Faust.” The Czech director draws on his own cultural history (Prague is home to UNIMA, the International Puppeteers Union) by heavily incorporating marionette puppetry as a narrative device, and supplements these richly-carved wooden characters with stop-motion animation. The result is a genre-defying reinterpretation of the classic German legend.

As a refresher, Dr. Faust was a real historical figure, a theologian and alchemist in the 15th century. The tale about his deal with the devil in exchange for knowledge beyond the worldly realm has inspired many adaptations throughout the centuries, most famously Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel of the same name. Over time, Faust has become a household name, and the source of artistic inspiration across genres. 

Švankmajer’s “Faust” tells a modern version of the story, and stars Petr Čepek (“I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen”) as an average man turned title character. After some devilish trickery befalls the man in his apartment, his curiosity and fearlessness ultimately lead him to a dressing room, where he assumes the role of Dr. Faust. The man comes to take on for himself Faust’s quest for otherworldly knowledge and power. Vacillating between marionette theatre, the live-action Faust’s dealings with Mephistopheles, and the clay Mephistopheles’s stop-motion shapeshifting, Švankmajer keeps the viewer on their toes.  

Čepek’s performance is remarkable. He naturally brings to life an honest and quotidian devilishness — the unnamed man’s willingness in assuming the role of Faust represents our collective flimsy morality. This realization of the corruptibility and uncomplicated manipulability of man is made convincing by Čepek’s seriousness. To summon Freud, the ease with which Čepek’s average man abandons the superego and undergoes a metamorphosis of the ego should alarm the hedonistic among us, as a reminder of the subconscious machination of the id. 

Visually, “Faust” is a whirlwind of cinematic craftsmanship. The carved marionettes are vivacious despite their immovable features and stiff hands. In contrast, Mephistopheles’s mutable form lends the demon a supernatural quality without fussing about with special effects. The shining jewel of this film comes in a brief sequence set to music from Charles Gounoud’s 1859 opera of the same name. In an embrace of surrealism comparable to that of Alain Resnais, the stage of our puppet theatre transforms into a vast field, to be raked by choreographed ballerinas. Interspersed by photographic tableaus, the comic interlude is perhaps an allegory for lost innocence and the banal inevitability of evil. Here, Švankmajer’s artistry prevails. 

The greatest warning from this rendition of the classic German legend regards the insidious performativity of everyday life. All the world is a stage, and we are at fatal risk of blurring the line between role and self. Any man is capable of losing himself to a Faustian façade, and in this farcical world of roleplay and theatricality, that façade may infect the soul. Švankmajer makes clear that we are all puppets without puppeteers, and Petr Čepek’s Faust animates this metaphor brilliantly.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *