Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is driven by his longing for enlightenment. He seeks to understand the very nature of life and how it makes the world go round. Driven by his burning desire for cognition, he even unearths corpses and rummages in their guts just to localize the home of the soul.
While he keeps on telling himself "in the beginning was the word", he gets to know the racketeer Mauricius (Anton Adassinsky), playing a worldly version of Mephistopheles, who eventually contradicts him: "In the beginning was the deed". In spite of being amorphic, Mauricius considers himself an Übermensch. Faust's obscure new friend takes him to the twilight zones of their small town.
In a bath, his attention is caught by the young Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), also known as "Gretchen". Later the two new friends are entangled in a pub brawl, Faust accidentally kills Gretchen's brother. Faust becomes obsessed with Gretchen, who appears to embody the beauty of blooming life. He indulges himself in thinking that studying her would be reasonable as a part of his research about what makes all the difference between life and death. When the aging Faust has become irreversibly infatuated with Gretchen, Mephistopheles offers him to let him have her.
Faust cannot resist the idea of spending a night with Gretchen. Yet Mauricius demands nothing less than Faust's soul in return. Faust even has to sign the contract with his own blood. Now living on borrowed time, Faust can hit on Gretchen, but he is haunted by penitence and fear. Finally Faust cannot bear Mauricius' nihilistic comments anymore. Overwhelmed with wrath, he buries Mauricius under rocks and finds himself lost in the middle of nowhere.Johannes Zeiler as Faust
Anton Adasinsky as Moneylender (Mephistopheles)
Isolda Dychauk as Gretchen
Georg Friedrich as Wagner
Hanna Schygulla as the Moneylender's'wife'
Antje Lewald as Gretchen's mother
Florian Brueckner as Valentin
Sigurdur Skulasson as Faust's father
Maxim Mehmet as Valentin's friend
Eva-Maria Kurz as Faust's cook
The film is the final part in a series of films where Alexander Sokurov explores the corrupting effects of power. The previous installments are three biographical dramas: about Adolf Hitler in Moloch from 1999, Vladimir Lenin in Taurus from 2001, and the Japanese emperor Hirohito in The Sun from 2005. Producer Andrey Sigle said about Faust: "The film has no particular relevance to contemporary events in the world – it is set in the early 19th century – but reflects Sokurov's enduring attempts to understand man and his inner forces." Beyond the themes within the actual film, the project also had a political dimension. Sigle said: "The film is a big Russian cultural project and for Putin is very important. He saw it as a film that can introduce the Russian mentality into European culture; to promote integration between Russian and European culture."
The project, described in 2005 as "loosely based on works by Goethe and Thomas Mann", was announced by Sokurov in 2005 as "a very colourful, elegant picture with a lot of Strauss music and a smell of chocolate." The eight-million euro film was produced by the St. Petersburg-based company Proline Film and received support from the Mass Media Support Fund of Russia.
Filming started 17 August 2009 in the Czech Republic, where it continued for two months. Locations included the castles of Točník, Lipnice nad Sázavou and Ledeč, as well as the town Kutná Hora. Studio scenes were shot at Barrandov Studios in Prague. Photography also took place in Germany. In October the team moved to Iceland for several days of filming resulting in some astonishing shots of geysers.
The film premiered on 8 September 2011 in competition at the 68th Venice International Film Festival. Three days later it was screened in the Masters section of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.
Jay Weissberg wrote in Variety: "Forget Marlowe, Goethe, Gounod and Murnau, or rather, lay them aside, since the idiosyncratic helmer adds his own spin on the classic legend, and an over-familiarity with Faust's previous incarnations will likely hinder understanding." In a reservation, Weissberg wrote that Sokurov's "established fans" will be "the only audience for this largely impenetrable though undeniably impressive indulgence". Regarding the visuals, he noted the unexpected collaboration between the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and Sokurov, and wrote: "[W]hile the stillness that marks the first films of his quartet (self-lensed) is little in evidence, visuals here are striking in their mottled gray tonalities. ... The influence of Flemish and Dutch painting on Sokurov's work has never been clearer than in Faust, with its deep debt to the witchcraft paintings of artists such as David Teniers and Herri met de Bles."
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote: "...and bliss out the next on the delirium that is “Faust,” the latest from Alexander Sokurov (“Russian Ark”). An eccentric interpretation of the Goethe play, “Faust” is mesmerizing, at times predictably if divertingly bewildering and beautiful, with images that burn into your memory, like that of an embracing couple falling into a lake in a vision of desire and the abyss that invokes “L’Atalante” but is definitely Sokurovian."
At the closing ceremony of the Venice Film Festival, Faust was honoured with the festival's highest prize for best film, the Golden Lion. The jury president was the American filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who said when he presented the winner: "There are some films that make you cry, there are some films that make you laugh, there are some films that change you forever after you see them; and this is one of them."