Svankmajer’s Faust walks an ambiguous line between autonomy and puppetry

The film begins with a classic everyman, a suit with a worn-looking face lurching out of the grey collar of his standardised suit. Exiting a station into the streets of Prague, he is accosted by flyer-wielding blankfaces pressing gutter-fodder into his hands, a map sketching out local streets to an unknown destination; he examines the map, crumples it in disgust to the floor.

On returning home our everyman is surprised by a black chicken, clucking absurdly around his flat, insulting him with the bodily doings that muss into his rug as he tries to sweep them up. There’s an intact eggshell in his bread, empty; all he gets from this animal intrusion are shit and a void where nourishment should be. He seems almost resigned when the furniture starts to fly around and this time contemplates the map sent up by the two characters from before, who stand beneath his window, stroking their avian accomplice. Their part played, they pop out the the contacts that had turned their eyes a horrorfilm white. The magic is real, there’s something supernatural here for sure, but everyone present is playing a part.

The Faustian tale has been told thousands of times; it appears in popular culture as frequently as the Wilhelm scream, and in just as many incarnations. People sell their souls to the devil every day, in supermarkets, schools, living rooms, concert halls, and the part where the price gets paid can be found by anyone looking it. In Svankmajer’s film painted backdrops drop over a real scene, replacing reality by its tragic equivalent; the Faust tale similarly drops into life and fiction alike, briefly taking control as the usual story is acted out, then abandoning the unfortunate protagonists to dazedly disentangle its consequences.

This Faustus finds himself complicit in his dramatic narratives, solemnly decking himself out in full makeup, costume and wig before he appears to come to his senses in the centre of the stage and shed this second skin, slicing through a backdrop to escape, or perhaps to progress, and find himself in some kind of alchemist’s workshop filled with strange bubblings and machinations. Svankmajer describes this film as a critique of the everyman of his native Czech Republic’s readiness to embrace capitalism with just as much enthusiasm as totalitarianism before it.

This is Svankmajer’s hyper-real world, all amplified rustling and close-up tongues. Everything is something a stage up from the standard, a second skin of caricature, a spitting-image mask over the real face. As in the crude enactments in which Faustus sees his destiny outlined, the puppeteer is never seen. The devils, too, are playing parts; painted wooden faces are shrouded by business-issue grey scarfs and traffic-dodging trenchcoats when they rush outside to blend in with the grey-faced streets.

Having made his terrible demand of his devil Mephistopheles, Faustus too exits into the real world, but finds it strangely changed. His white-eyed tormentors now become his servants; entertained by a busker playing for money he dines and is wined by a fountain improbably drilled into a table, over which workmen slaver after he leaves. An old tramps scurries and worries over a human leg, and in a battle of wills with another hungry dog heaves it over a bridge to rot and waste away underwater, no use to anyone. The parallels with Abercrombie & Fitch’s attitude to homeless people could hardly be more pronounced. Here is capitalism, Faustus’ choice, in exemplary form.

Just as Faust wanders into myth and out of his own life, so the script wanders from Marlowe to Goethe, in the English bizarrely voiced by Fawlty Towers’ Manuel. Along with its critique of slavering capitalism the film lambasts the Soviet tradition’s romanticisation of labour, ballet dancers skipping to mow hay, leered over by a passing farmer before they are forced to pelt through the mud to avoid the downpour of dull reality.

But here, indeed is the core of the thing. After an implied passing of time Faustus wails, “foul traitor, where are the pulse and core of nature you promised to reveal?” The devil answers him, “you lack the wit to see them in every blade of grass.” He does, he fails to recognise that his essential cynicism and boredom will extend to all scales, just as he fails to recognise his inevitable gravitation toward the fate of the man he saw before him, fleeing the theatre in dismay; the surprise though is his ultimate fate, to be mown down by a car piloted by no earthly being, and in place of the devil taking his soul his severed leg is carried off by the cannibal tramp.

So, it seems, we see our fates but do nothing to avoid them; today’s rhetoric is full of laments over the terrible fate promised by consumerism and environmental irresponsibility, broadcast over our airways by those that encourage us to turn on our TVs every night, chattered on sofas by students fiddling with iPads with all lights blazing upstairs and a fridgeful of supermarket food. The hypocrisy becomes comical; Faustus sets his script aflame in a dramatic flourish, but we know the gesture is hollow as the whittled-out puppet-head he’s been inhabiting. Our Faustus exchanges shit and emptiness for shit and emptiness, but the second served with an obsequious grin.

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