It's 'Faust' by way of Kafka in film by Czech animator

June 12, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Connoisseurs of the surreal, the grotesque and the absurd are hereby urged to repair to the Orpheum in Fells Point for a tangy repast of unimaginable delight. Others are advised to steer clear; this dish is for the cognoscenti.

The movie is "Faust," by the Czech surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer, as much out of Kafka as out of Goethe and Marlowe. It reiterates the classic story of the necromancer who makes a deal with His Satanic Majesty in order to enjoy sublime power and sensation on Earth but who must, in the end, give the devil his due.

However, this "Faust" is a mad mixture of mediums, yielding images largely unseen anywhere outside the most recondite animation emporiums. It has giant puppets, apples that rot into maggoty guck, and dozens of other weirdnesses. "Pocahontas" it ain't.

The film flirts with the actual text of Goethe's "Faust" as well as Charles Gounod's operatic version, but it does offer one amusing revisionist stroke. Instead of be ing a mad intellectual who romantically hungers for knowledge above all else, this Faust is a dreary little guy in a raincoat with the pasty face and diffident manner of a man who has spent too much time in the office.

Played by the late Czech theatrical star Petr Cepek, he emerges from the underground and then is, a la Kafka, handed a mysterious map that he eventually decides to follow. Its arrows lead him through modern Prague to the back room of an abandoned theater, where he finds the old Goethe manuscript, as well as a costume and makeup.

Curious, he puts on the clothes and applies the makeup and is instantly transferred to a mad puppetland where the play is being performed for an audience that hides in darkness. Worse, he discovers that he's one of the puppets.

For the purely image-literate, the film is an amazement. Svankmajer's specialty is clay-mation -- stop-motion animation for sculpted clay forms -- and he uses this technique to get us into some very strange areas. In one, a clay embryo defines itself out of the inchoate muck in a test tube, turning finally into a fetus. Cepek's Faust liberates it with a hammer. It springs magically to life when a mystic incantation on parchment is inserted into its lips; and it ages majestically -- that is, the head does, atop the squiggling baby's body, until it achieves its true form, that of Mephistopheles himself.

For all the fun, my concrete, hopelessly bourgeois mind found the more literal and traditional parts more stimulating. Cepek, often dwarfed by the effects, is a brilliant actor, and when Svankmajer pits him against an animated version of himself (the final form of Mr. Mephistopheles) and the two use the actual Goethe text to bitterly re-create the dialogue between fallen man and fallen angel, the movie is at its most powerful and compelling. It made me want to see a "Faust" without exploding apples.

'FAUST'

Directed by Jan Svankmajer

Starring Petr Cepek

Released by Zeitgeist

Unrated (disturbing imagery)

***

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