Sunday, October 21, 2007


How exactly would one explain a Jan Svankmajer film to someone who has never experienced him? He’s a Czech filmmaker mostly known for short films that work as eerie combinations of live action, stop motion animation, and claymation, generally put to fairly hallucinatory effect. This, his second feature length film (after his ultra-creepy adaptation of Alice in Wonderland), continues in that mold, and throws in a good amount of humor in the form of a jester to break up the craziness.

The film is almost like a silent movie at first. There’s no dialogue in the film outside of lines taken from Goethe’s version of Faust, and they don’t start until close to a third of the way through the film. Instead we get some random guy wandering around his town in the Czech Republic after finding a map leading to a seemingly abandoned theater, where he’s forced to play the title role in a stage production of Faust. Somewhere along the way, he loses himself within the part, and truly becomes Dr. Faustus, right a variant of his tragic ending.

This loose plot provides for some appropriately weird images. All the other characters in the play, for instance, are marionettes, with an all-powerful puppeteer hiding above the stage, only his/her hands visible. At points the marionettes even jump the tracks and flee the theater entirely, still somehow able to maneuver in the real world outside despite the lack of anyone wielding their strings. Another great visual, just as one last example before I stop, comes when he goes to sign the contract selling his soul to Mephistopheles for godlike earthly power. The idea of angels and devils warring over his soul is made physical here, with miniature puppets of angels and devils duking it out by his feet, with the devils dominating the fight as he signs his soul away.

It’s a fairly powerful story the film is based around, and the film does manage to achieve some of that emotional strength, but the main allure of this or any other Svankmajer creation is the visual power. It certainly succeeds admirably on that level, so if you’re looking for something a little bit out of the norm, you’d do well to check this one out.

Rating: *** ½

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