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Dr.

Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s


Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

My decision to discuss Alexander Sokurov’s famous tetralogy of power stems

from my belief that theatre and theatre studies gain a lot from works of art produced

in other genres. This is particularly the case, I believe, when it comes to classical

texts, that is, plays written centuries ago that to become relavant in the present ask for

a different kind of light to be shed on them. In that sense, my mentality is very close

to the Russian director’s view that as an artist he has mostly been influenced not by

other filmmakers but literature1 and classical music.

As for Sokurov, it is not accidental that he is drawn to the character of major

historical figures like Hitler, Lenin and the Japanese emperor Hirohito. As he

explains, his first degree was in history, thus the influence and interest in it is lifelong.

Consequently, he cannot see Russian life as an aesthetic phenomenon per se. As for

Faust, the legendary man who sold his soul to the devil to obtain ultimate power over

things known and unknown in life, Sokurov’s attraction seems only natural for a man

who is so concerned with what is good and what is evil in human nature. This is a

motif often expressed in his interviews but I would rather quote from his documentary

The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn where he admits: “I’d like to understand why the

cruelty of man [my emphasis] is something I worry so much about”.

1
Alexander Prokhorov informs us that by the mid-1990s Russian cinema had started reconsidering
perestroika and the first post-Soviet years. The result of this reevaluation was two different ideological
trends. One is the cinema that distills from the tradition of Russian classical humanist literature
(Pushkin, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, and Leo Tolstoi) and its dissidents (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for
example). They offered their version of humanism as an alternative to Soviet humanism, driven by the
values of Enlightenment and its belief in the inherent goodness and rationality of human nature, and
hope for a perfect community in the distant or immediate future. Still, Prokhorov suggests that the
cinema of the major auteur filmmakers of the 1980s and 1990s, Aleksei German, Kira Muratova, and
Alexander Sokurov, belongs to the anti-Enlightenment trend of Russian culture. See, Alexander
Prokhorov, “From Family Reintegration to Carnivalistic Degradation: Dismantling Soviet Communal
Myths in Russian Cinema of the Mid-1990s”, The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 51, No. 2,
Special Forum Issue: Resent, Reassess, and Reinvent: The Three R's of Post-Soviet Cinema (Summer,
2007), pp. 272-294.

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

The man he confesses his concern about good and evil to is not just anyone.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the Russian Nobel laurate novelist and historian, the first to

reveal the horrors of the gulag, the Soviet Union’s Siberian forced labour camps in his

novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written in 1962, and The Gulag

Archipelago, published between 1973 and 1975. For his criticism against Stalin, he

spent eight years in prisons and labour camps, three years in enforced exile whilst

upon the publication of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago in the West, he was

arrrested and charged with treason (in 1974). He was immediately exiled from the

Soviet Union and settled down in the United States to return to Russia twenty years

later, in 1994, thanks to the introduction of glasnost in the country in the late 1980s.

In that sense, it is really interesting that Sokurov seeks an answer from a man

whose entire life has been marked by human evil and cruelty, embodied mainly in the

face of the Soviet authoritarian regime. Equally interesting for the purposes of our

discussion is Solzhenitsyn’s response that cruelty and kindness are the two extreme

poles and that the whole spectrum of human nature should not be reduced to these. 2

Even the most infamous of Shakespeare’s villains, I would add, Richard III, finds

ways to justify himself and thus be justified, at least partly. However, as Solzhenitsyn

writes in the opening chapter of The Gulag Archipelago “The imagination and

strength of Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they

had no ideology… It is thanks to ideology that it fell to the lot of the twentieth century

to experience villainy on a scale of millions”.3 Obviously the discussion between the

two Russians, is not pure ontological and metaphysical reflection but reveals a

2
In The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn. directed by Alexander Sokurov, 1998.
3
A. Solshenitsyn, in Malia Martin, “Review: A World on Two Fronts: Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag
Archipelago”, The Russian Review, Vol.36, No.1 (Jan., 1977), 46-63.

2
Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

historicized concern about “ubiquitous power”,4 set against the backdrop of 20th

century history.

For both Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn evil is not an abstract notion but always

has a face; it is personal, found in a man and caused by a man. In that sense, evil

becomes a choice.5 Each of Sokurov’s protagonists makes a choice. “At what price

does a man choose to sell—or on the contrary, not to sell—his soul? That’s what these

films talk about, most of all. And the consequences that ensue, of course”. 6 Thus, in

the “idiosyncratic biographies” of Hitler (in Moloch, 1999), Lenin (in Taurus, 2001)

and Japanese Emperor Hirohito (in The Sun, 2005), the director turns his lens on their

“shadowy inner lives”,7 indifferent to the myth that surrounds these emblematic

tyrannical figures. Like the Shakespearean villains, Sokurov’s villains are humans

stripped off their myth: the arrogant hypochondriac Hitler, the bedridden dying Lenin,

and the disillusioned Hirohito are portrayed in grotesgue realism, which lacks any

tragic overtones. Sokurov sees them as mere humans, places them in specific

physical locations, narrow time spans and shoots crucial private moments of transition

and transformation.8 As Nancy Condee notes, there is a close relationship between


4
Alexander Sokurov. “War Paint: Francophonia Director Alexander Sokourov Talks Art and Power”,
Interview with Carmen Gray, 17th September 2015, Russia, The Calvert Journal,
http://calvertjournal.com/articles/show/4695/sokurov-interview-Francofonia-venice [11/5/2017]
5
Alexander Schmemann, “On Solzhenitsyn”, Communio 35 (Fall 2008), www.communio-
icr.com/filesschmemann35-3.pdf , 479 [11/5/2017]. This essay first appeared in English in Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, ed. John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh, and
Alexis Klimoff (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1975). Original Russian publication in Vestnik
KSKhD (Paris) 98 (1970): 72–87.
6
A. Sokurov. “Interview with Aleksandr Sokurov”, Interview to Jeremy Szaniawski. Critical Inquiry,
Vol.33, No.1 (Autumn 2006), 27.
7
Alexander Sokurov, “Seeking New Shadows In A Dark Classic”, Movie review,
http://www.npr.org/2013/11/14/244538636/alexander-sokurov-seeking-new-shadows-in-a-dark-
classic [10/5.2017]
8
Hitler, together with Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann and his lover Eva Braun, are in a Bavarian
mountaintop hideout for a weekend retreat. The film takes place in 1942, while Hitler was at the peak
of his glory, just before Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad. As for Lenin in Taurus he spends the last days
of his life physically and mentally ill at his estate at Gorki. His cries of anguish are only answered by
the mooing of a cow. Likewise, in The Sun the emperor Hirohito spends his time performing his royal

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

death, empire and culture in these films; they form the “conudrum” that “the political

leader has been powerful but not immortal”, following the course of “acme, decline

and transformation”.9 By contrast, art, which may be vulnerable and weak within the

milieu produced, typically asserts its immortal nature in the long run.

Turning from history to art in his attempt to tackle the question of good and

evil, Sokurov does not resort to Marx, Engel and Lenin’s favourite Shakespeare, and

plays like Richard III or Macbeth, to complete his tetralogy, but to another pre-

revolutionary classic of the Western canon and favourite of Pushkin and Dostoevsky,

Goethe’s Faust. The final film of the tetralogy of power, Faust, sheds a different light

on the historical villains of the 20th century, proving that the Enlightenment Everyman

in his quest for absolute knowledge and power transformed the 20 th century world

history into a course of traumatic events. Ever since Shakespeare, literature has been

attracted to such amoral creatures who have turned their back to God, rejecting thus

the very axiomatic existence of good and evil. As Dostoevsky asserted “If there is no

God, everything is permitted”. 10 Nietzsche’s Death of God and Enlightenment’s praise

and deification of man instead paved the way to a century of mass killings.

In the film, Faust is mainly surrounded by three bodies, Mephistopheles’ ugly

face and monstrous body, Margarete’s angelic face and body and a faceless corpse.

His adventure in knowledge and power actually starts from the dead faceless body.
rituals in the bunkers of his compound. He tries to ignore the victorious Americans and the firebombing
of the city of Tokyo but in the end he will publically renounce his divine status. All three are seen in
mundane actions that reveal the ‘small’ man behind the ‘big’ myth: Andy, that is Hitler, is a scatological
hypohondriac; he cannot bear unpleasant smells, cannot bear the sight of puppies, that is, life, and is
afraid of illness and death. Hirohito is depicted as grown up child ignorant of the real world he is about
to enter.
9
Nancy Condee, The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema, New York: Oxford UP, 2009, 167
10
M.D. Aeschliman, “Solzhenitsyn and Modern Literature”, August 1990,
https://www.firstthings.com/article/1990/08/007-solzhenitsyn-and-modern-literature
[12/9/2016]

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

After descending from heavens to a filthy German town, the camera focuses on the

penis of this cadaver, being dissected by Faust. Faust, that is, is depicted as one that

perpetuates this fascination with anatomy that had started to systematically develop in

early modern times. The Cartesian separation of the body from the soul, and the

consequent view of the body as a machine seem to befit Sokurov’s Faust who equally

engages in the Cartesian exploration of identity. Like Rembrandt in his painting

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman, Faust searches for the seat of the soul in the

interiority of a dead body: is soul to be found in the extracted heart, the long, dark,

filthy entrails or the syphilitic inert penis?11 Together with his assistant Wagner, they

discuss the possible location of the soul. A little later, Wagner will say: "Good doesn't

exist, but evil does", forshadowing the end of the film.

The juxtaposition of their living bodies vs a dead body, of life vs death, of the

eloquence of life vs the silence that accompanies death, of the penis as a locus of

desire and fertlity and the cancellation of both at the sight of the impotent member of

a deceased man, all these encapsulate what Sokurov’s Faust is about: death, culture

and as we will immediatley see empire. For Faust is not only a restless seeker of

answers but peniless and starving. Yes, he is seeking for knowledge but he is equally

seeking for food. Mephistopheles here is a moneylender, a “Shylock-like respectable

usurer”,12 possibly an incarnation of the capitalistic evil in the reign of post-

communist Russia. For soon enough he will be transformed into “a grotesgue, reptile-

like asexual”13monster. Sokurov’s Mephistopheles follows the Christian tradition of

the Satan being ugly, thus bearing God’s stigma and making his immorality visible. In
11
See Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance
Culture, NY: Routledge, 1995.
12
Abraham Jugum. “128. Russian Director Alexander Sokurov’s German Film ‘Faust’ (2011):
Reflecting on the Faust Syndrome in our Lives”, in Movies that Make you Think, May 07, 2012.
[23/5/2017]
13
ibid.

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

fact, this Russian Mephistopheles is a monstrous body, unlike the ugly

Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604) or Goethe’s neatly dressed man.

Sokurov does not even follow the example of Thomas Mann’s Mephistopheles, who

is totally secular.14 His Mephistopheles is a beast in the post Renaissance sense of the

wondrous beings that are physically deformed. They are not treated with horror (and

this is how the inhabitants of the town in which Mephistopheles lives react), they are

not considered to be repulsive but they are approached with physica curiosa, that is

they are intellectually stimulating.15

On the contrary, Margarete, the young woman that fascinates Faust is not just

beautiful. Her self-illuminating marble-like, white face is obviously designed to recall

the typical idea of Beauty in Western art, which identifies Beauty with Goodness and

sustains the doxa that God is light. Thomas Aquinas proposed that Beauty requires

three things: proportion, integrity and claritas, i.e. clarity and luminosity, 16 and

Margarete is a diaphanous donna angelicata, an angel-like woman, an object of

amorous passion that will never, however, be transformed into Dante’s Beatrice, that

is “a path to salvation”, “a means of ascending to God”. 17 She cannot lead Faust to a

higher degree of luminous spirituality; Faust wants it darker.

Faust is a latently cruel male: he mistreats his servant, murders, stones, takes a

woman mainly out of lust; this is a totally demystified, desecrecated Faust, unlike

Goethe’s, who may be seen as an example of Sokurov’s fondness for “studies of

maleness: male strengths and weaknesses, male sentiments and rivalries, male

sensitivity and violence”. As mentioned beforehand, Faust “starts with a big close-up
14
Ουμπέρτο Έκο, Ιστορία της Ασχήμιας, μτφρ. Δήμητρα Δότση και Ανταίος Χρυσοστομίδης, Αθήνα,
Καστανιώτη, 2007, 179-183.
15
ibid., 241-243.
16
ibid, 100.
17
ibid, 171.

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

of a penis and scrotum […] and wades through a fragmentary, dispersed narrative in

which a man ultimately discovers his inner Ubermensch”, the Nietzschean Superman,

“trampling on other men and women along the way”. 18 Faust will even stone

Mephistopheles to death.

The end of the film finds the two away from the narrow streets and tiny rooms

of the crowded town, in an uninhabited cultural and mythological no-man’s land.

Breaking his deal with the devil, Faust becomes the true absolute evil, ready now to

be reborn as a “tyrant”, “a political leader”, “an oligarch”. 19 This is the tyrant of the

future and unlike the typical pattern of “acme, decline and trnsformation” encountered

in Moloch, Taurus and The Sun, Sokurov here depicts the way to “acme”. Faust is the

opposite of the divine Hirohito, who had to learn to be a common mortal. In that

sense, the harsh, volcanic landscape of the finale is the new territory to be conquered

and not a sign of Faust’s ruination.20

The finale was shot in Iceland, revealing Sokurov’s interest in “border zones”,

that is, “marginal spaces and liminal states”, which involve geographical and

historical settings, plots and the life experiences of many of his protagonists. Thus

Hitler in Moloch is not in Berlin but in his mountain retreat, Lenin in Taurus spends

the last days of his life away from Kremlin in an estate at Gorki, Hirohito in The Sun

prepares his speech of the renunciation of his imperial divinity in the final days of the

Second World War,21 and Faust is about to start his new life as a Nietzschean

Superman in the desolated landscape of the extreme Northern part of Europe.


18
Tony Rayns, “Film of the Month: Faust”, BFI Film forever. 29 April 2014,
http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-month-faust
[24 May 2017]
19
Sokurov in Abraham Jugum, ibid.
20
Tony Ryans, ibid.
21
Julian Graffy, “Living and Dying in Sokurov’s Border Zones: Days of Eclipse”, The Cinema of
Alexander Sokurov, Birgit Beumers and Nancy Condee, ed. London and NY, I.B. Tauris, 2011, 74-75.

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

Geographical, historical and existential liminality is a recurrent motif throughout the

whole tetralogy of power.

Concluding, the tetralogy of power and Sokurov’s appropriation of Goethe’s

Faust reveals the director’s skepticism over a century of mass killing and violence

that turned Enlightenment’s trust and hope in reason and man into despair, and

transformed the world’s modern historic course into a chain of cultural traumas such

as Auschwitz in Germany, the gulag in Soviet Union, the nuclear bombing in

Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

Moloch (1999)

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

Taurus (2001)

10
Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

The Sun (2005)

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Dr. Penelope Chatzidimitriou | “From Hitler to Faust: Alexander Sokurov’s
Tetralogy of Power” | Film Adaptation Conference, Thessaloniki, May 2017

Faust (2011)

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