Show me what mysteries the universe doth hold,
Even to the vaulted heavens;
Show me all the suns,
Shimmering like snowy flakes;
All the secrets that comprise creation
In infinite space and time. (1)
The story of Faust, the scholar who sells his soul to the Devil for knowledge, has for centuries been a favoured topic of playwrights, musicians and puppeteers. Although the legend predates both (2), its most famous renditions remain Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Most film adaptations have been based on one or both of these works; none, however, have been stranger or more intricate than Jan Švankmajer’s Lekce Faust (Faust, 1994).
There are many ways of adapting a written work for the screen. One could attempt something close to a literal translation, as Michael Radford does in his film version (1984) of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. One could shift the narrative to a different time and setting, as Jacques Rivette does with Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece)in La Belle noiseuse (1991). More daringly, one could insert a text within a postmodern meta-narrative, something Michael Winterbottom pulls off in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005).
Lekce Faust (literally, “The Lesson of Faust”) takes an entirely different approach. Where it most immediately differs from the examples above is that they, like most other well-known versions of the tale, take inspiration from a single source text. Švankmajer’s film, on the other hand, is a collage; fragments from plays, old Czech puppet productions and opera interact with dilapidated buildings, hand-drawn sets, stop-motion animation and Prague streets (the latter practically shot verite-style).
It is fitting, perhaps, that the film is itself fragmented. Unusually enough, there is no “definitive” version of Lekce Faust: one, designed for the international market, is dubbed into English (richly – the voice of Andrew Sachs complements the Marlowe quotations particularly well); another, less widely seen version features a Czech-language dub. The original print, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, is now considered lost (3).
All this, however, distracts from the greatest achievement of Lekce Faust. Rather than merely compiling many sources into a kind of Faust mixtape, Švankmajer’s film transcends conventional linear narrative altogether, to the point where the end result resembles a dream. While it is not explicitly presented as such – there is no framing device; no Chitty Chitty Bang Bang epilogue – the intention is clear: it is as if an unseen protagonist has, following a visit to an old Prague puppet theatre, fallen asleep at home surrounded by printed adaptations of Faust as Charles Gounod’s opera tinkles from the clock radio. Perhaps we might call this protagonist “Švankmajer”.
His dream takes a winding, circular route. A regular middle-aged man follows a map through the streets of modern-day Prague to a decaying property. Descending a dark stairwell, he finds himself in an actor’s dressing-room. After applying a false beard and robes, he begins to read from the script in front of him:
Alas, philosophy I have explored,
As well as medicine and law;
Add to these – regrettably –
My studies in theology.
Yet here I sit, a foolish bore,
No wiser than I was before… (4)
Then, he is on a stage before a modern-day Czech audience, then an alchemist’s laboratory with life-size puppets, then in an attic summoning Mephistopheles. The transitions between these scenes – and, often, within them – have a dreamlike, disorienting (and, freed from the bounds of realism, rather exhilarating) quality.
Dreams have long been an important facet of Jan Švankmajer’s work (5). They are present throughout his oeuvre: the shorts Byt (The Flat, 1968), Zvahlav aneb Saticky Slameného Huberta (Jabberwocky, 1971) and Do Pivnice (Down to the Cellar, 1983), among others, all trade heavily on dream imagery; his features, on the other hand – Nĕco z Alenky (Alice, 1988) and Prezít Svuj Zivot (Teorie a Praxe) (Surviving Life [Theory and Practice], 2010) – are directly about the process of dreaming.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – adapted in a surprisingly faithful manner by Švankmajer – is an obvious choice for this treatment. Why Faust, though? Švankmajer gives a hint in the following quotation: “I do believe that man is, in a certain way, determined. I am convinced that we are still manipulated: by the stars, by our genes, by our repressed feelings, by society, its education, advertising – repression of all kinds.” (6) The Fausts of Marlowe and Goethe seek to find freedom by escaping the bounds of the rational, scientific world and its (then) established metaphysical framework. Might not the world of dreams provide such an opportunity? Hardly, Švankmajer seems to argue: if anything, the trick passageways and sudden transitions experienced while sleeping leave even less agency. Faust’s destiny is inescapable.
Powerlessness is a key theme of Lekce Faust. While Marlowe and Goethe’s protagonists aim to be masters of their own destinies, Švankmajer’s Faust seems (at times literally) guided by puppet-masters. Unlike his knowledge-and-power-seeking counterparts from the classic plays, his sole motivation is curiosity – and, even then, he is mostly led. He summons Mephistopheles and engages in dialogue with him, but he is only reading from a script (on several occasions he has to dig it out because he has forgotten his lines). In other scenes, he is encased within a life-sized wooden puppet (a fate not dissimilar to that suffered by Alice in Švankmajer’s previous feature).
Although the story of Faust – particularly in its early incarnations – was intended as a morality play, this theme of external manipulation was somewhat consistent with the Calvinist theology prominent in Marlowe’s time (7). In that milieu, one had no choice in the matter of salvation or damnation; the course of one’s life was plotted out in advance. So it goes for the Fausts of Švankmajer’s film – for, the man who sprints past him in terror at the beginning of the film and the man who wanders past at the end are also Fausts; doomed to spend the remainder of their lives in a haunted house living out someone else’s script. Unlike the conclusion of Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974), there will be no collaborator to rescue them and break the cycle. Rather, they are part of an eternal procession – perhaps containing the entire human species – all of whom are consigned to the same unpleasant fate.
What fate? The red car that runs Faust down at the end of the film is the same that a devil hops into in the middle of the film. Presumably – and in keeping with the conclusion of Marlowe’s play – it is transportation to hell. And yet, Mephistopheles never does catch up with him; nor is there a devil-puppet waiting in the car. It is empty (8). That, to be sure, is the real damnation.
1. Quotation taken from the English language dub of Lekce Faust. Original source unknown.
2. Henry Morley, “Introduction”, Marlowe’s Faustus; Goethe’s Faust, George Routledge and Sons, London, 1883, pp. 5-6.
3. František Dryje and Bertrand Schmitt (eds.), Jan Švankmajer: Dimensions of Dialogue/Between Film and Fine Art, Arbor Vitae, Prague, 2013, p. 341.
4. Quotation taken from the English language dub of Lekce Faust. Paraphrased from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: Der Tragödie erster Teil.
5. Peter Hames (ed.), Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer, Flicks Books, England, 1995, pp. 129-133.
6. Jan Švankmajer, Švankmajer’s Faust: The Script, trans. Valerie Mason, Flicks Books, England, 1996, p. xiii.
7. Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama, Oxford University Press, London, 2012, p. 165.
8. Švankmajer, p. xi.
Lekce Faust/Faust (1994 Czech Republic/France/UK 97 mins)
Prod Co: Athanor/BBC/CNC/Heart of Europe Prague K Productions/Kominsk/Lumen Films/Pandora Cinema Prod: Jaromír Kallista Dir:Jan Švankmajer Scr:Jan Švankmajer, based on the novel by Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, and the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust Phot: Svatopluk Malý Ed: Marie Zemanová Prod Des:Jan Švankmajer, Eva Švankmajerová
Cast: Petr Cepek, Jan Kraus, Vladimír Kudla, Antonin Zacpal, Jirí Suchý, Viktorie Knotková