Next cab off the rank is one of the truly most disturbing films I have ever seen. No, it’s not disturbing because of it being scary or full of horror, rather the fact that it’s full of stop motion marionettes. And they disturb me. STOP JUDGING ME! Today’s film is Jan Svankmajer’s Faust. For those who don’t know, Svankmajer is a Czechoslovakian artist and filmmaker. He has done a LOT of work in a near 50 year career, and has been influential to such filmmakers as Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. Starting in the theatre, he soon moved to the medium of film – concentrating on shorts for many decades, and in the 1980s moved to full length features, giving the world his take on the Alice In Wonderland story. But in my opinion Faust, his second full length film, is his masterwork.
This is a film that I stumbled upon quite by accident in the early 90s. It was being broadcast as the midday movie on SBS (our multicultural station). I came in at pretty much the start of it and found myself oddly fascinated by it. It’s a strange mix of humans, puppets, stop motion camera tricks and claymation art – much in the vein of David Lynch’s The Muppet Show. This is a mix that lets you know you are looking at art created by someone who not only knows the forms inside and out, but is not afraid to blend them, with scenes involving all of the above in various degrees.
For those who are unaware of the story of Faustus, first – for shame. And, for second, it’s the story of a man who trades his soul to the devil in exchange for a period of knowledge and power. Following that period, the devil comes to collect.
This version of the tale takes place in an unnamed Eastern European city, and focuses on an unnamed central figure (who, for ease, I’ll just call Faust). Before I get into the meat of the film, I just have to take a quick detour to talk about the overall look and feel. This film is doubly disturbing to me – in addition to my distrust of marionettes and stop motion freakiness, there is something about films made in Eastern Europe that just feel “odd” – grey, congestive, dull, almost nightmarish. I’ve noticed it in every film I’ve seen that was filmed there. No matter the cost of it, they all have the same feel to me. And that just adds to the general feeling of unease of this film.
Back to the story – within the first five minutes of the film, we have been assaulted with woodcut images of demons, a rather ominous choir, a mysterious map, a chicken and a loaf of bread with an egg in it. So yeah, this is NOT a film that you should watch if you are in any way against unsettling images. And then, with a flourish of stop motion, the devil’s minions show up, well an extra minion – since one was the map giver from the first scene (two gentlemen who show up at various points and places throughout the film). Needless to say, our Mr Faust decides to take a trip to the location given on the mysterious map. And where it leads him to is a building that came right out of some 1700’s fairy tale. It’s a building that makes the rest of the city feel normal and at ease.
Once in the building, Faust soon finds himself drawn into the performance, quickly donning a disguise that makes him look not unlike a hybrid of Mick Fleetwood and the Burger King and reading from the script. The willingness he has to become part of the performance and accept all that happens around him has always given me the impression that he knew what was coming, if not outright had organised the whole performance himself. Even when he rejects the trappings of a traditional performance and tries to escape, you get the feeling that he knows he is still performing. And, given the fact that he is one of the few “humans” not to react negatively as the performance starts to bleed into the real world, one would not be too far gone in suspecting that he is just as much a puppet as the marionettes – especially given how the film ends. As Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage” – and the world of Svankmajer is stage on a stage on a stage.
One thing that I have noticed about all of Svankmajer’s productions, and it could be because this is what his primary medium seems to be – even the live action performers feel like puppets. They seem to move with an exaggerated, stilted range; even when performing the smallest of tasks. I actually find that this to be a really well done aspect to his films as it helps flesh out the worlds he is trying to put forward. Much as the way Jim Henson was able to seamlessly blend Muppets and humans by imbuing his creations with human qualities, Svankmajer is able to pull off the same sort of thing, only by doing it in reverse, and showing his humans as stringless puppets – sort of blending the front and back of the curtain, if you will. In fact, not only does he blend the curtain quite a bit, but in several points throughout the film (starting when Faust is first visited by the marionette angel and devil) removes it complete, by showing the puppeteer’s hands controlling the movements, and leading you to assume that he is also providing the speaking voices.
This was the first time in over a decade that I’d watched the film, and in fact, I’d bought the DVD simply because I’d enjoyed the film the first time I’d seen it, years earlier than that. I must say, that it retains all the unsettling, dreamlike charm that I remember.