Film Review: The Last Faust

Dir:Philipp Humm & Dominik Wieschermann
Cast: Steven Berkoff, Martin Hancock, Glyn Dilley, Yvonne Mai
Release Date: 2nd December 2019

The notion of selling your soul to the devil for personal gain has influenced more artistic endeavours than you can shake a whole faggot of sticks at, and has the story of Faust at its root.  The Last Faust is faithful to Goethe’s version of the story, and covers his two plays, the better known Faust part 1 and the far more esoteric part 2.

Faust part 1 is a relatively simple story of a pact between God and the demon Mephistopheles, where God bets Mephistopheles that he can’t lead Faust astray.  With a tragic romantic subplot involving a young woman called Gretchen, this is the story every German schoolchild knows.  Faust II however, is infinitely more complex.  It took Goethe 60 years to write and he himself proclaimed it unperformable.  The entire play lasts 21 hours.  So for writer and director Philipp Humm, a tech exec turned filmmaker, it was no small challenge to transform this poetic behemoth into 107 minutes of screen time.

The film begins with a Star Wars style text exposition (but without the scrolling and iconic music), which explains, a la Terminator, that an artificial neural network is taking over, attempting to destroy both humanity and the superhumans that Dr Faust, and his successor Dr Goodfellow have created.  Dr Goodfellow (Stephen Berkoff), is taking refuge in his mother’s house, which has never been connected to the network, and it’s in this safe haven that he tells Faust’s story to the superhuman, machine learning, AI robot, Paris.

The Bet with God and Mephisto (The Humm Collection) (Medium)

Humm uses two very distinct styles to separate the real time narration of Dr Goodfellow from the visualisation of Faust’s adventures, where the narration sections serve to summarise (and thankfully make sense of) the Faust story. Humm presents the play as a play, with bold, reductionist staging and poetic dialogue, likely in the style of Goethe’s original writing.

I managed to follow the story for the first 40 minutes or so, but the sheer volume of references, images, interwoven themes and side stories covered by the second part of the play made the plot almost unfathomable.  I started to think maybe I was too tired to give it my full attention and wafted off into thinking about the modern malady of short attention spans (and so, ironically, missing at least three important plot developments).  I suspect it won’t just be me that stops trying to make sense of it all and just watches the scenery waft past. Goethe acknowledged that Faust part 2 probably wouldn’t make sense to those not “in the know”, and that everyone else should just enjoy the spectacle.  I’m not sure the spectacle is all that enjoyable if you can’t fathom what’s going on.  But in the same way that Goethe used a plethora of cultural styles in Faust part 2 – operatic elements, ballet, a range of dramatic forms including Greek tragedy, medieval mystery, renaissance masque and many others, Humm does the same from a modern perspective, emulating Goethe by including contemporary dance, music (by the wonderful Yello), masks and comedic costumes throughout the play sections.  Which makes not following the story slightly more bearable.

Dance scene with Mephisto (Medium)

Not satisfied with attempting to translate an unperformable play into a film for modern audiences, Humm goes further by exploring the theme of the superman, as described by another German mega-star, Neitzsche.  Taking an educated guess, I’d say the “Last” in the title refers to the “last man”, the opposite of Neitzsche’s superman, where the utopia Faust and Goodfellow aspired to create has instead turned decidedly dystopian (as in fiction these things tend to do).  But that might just be me overstretching the Neitzsche connection.  It could equally be the case that the “Last” in the title refers simply to the fact that Goodfellow will inevitably be the last person who carries on Faust’s work, due to the impending demise of the human race, via the tech plotline introduced at the start of the film.  In framing the film with this “Terminator” trope, Humm picks up on the subject of technological advancement in Faust part 2 and tries to run with it.  In fact, the first time we see Faust, he appears to be dressed as Steve Jobs, a nod to Goethe’s comments on the modern advancement of technology and possibly Humm’s own interpretation of Jobs as a modern-day Neitzschean “superman”. But this tech storyline introduces yet another big, heavy theme, and attempting to carry all those heavy themes at once means The Last Faust at times becomes denser than dark matter.

I’d like to say that this film may be useful to scholars of Goethe and Neitzsche, where, as every A level student knows, watching the film is quicker than reading the book.  But I suspect the reverse is the case here.  The Last Faust has a story so complex it would tax a machine learning superhuman and reading Faust part 1 and 2, followed by Neitzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, may be the best way to understand this film.

Hommunculus (Medium)

Interestingly at the time I wrote this review, the IMDB storyline said Dr Goodfellow is played by TBC.  I don’t know what made Berkoff take on that role at such a late stage.  He may be best known for playing a baddie in both TV and film, but he’s also an acclaimed playwright and not a man to shirk an artistic challenge (one of his first plays was an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the stage). Maybe he saw Humm as a kindred spirit.  Whatever the reason, Berkoff’s gravitas saves this film.

So that’s The Last Faust from my perspective. I’m sorry if this reads more like a film studies essay than a review – I blame the Humanities degree, which until today hasn’t been all that useful.  In essence, this is Humm’s homage to Goethe and Neitzsche.  I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, but it made a refreshing change from the simplistic narratives and reductionist ideas about life found in many modern films.  It asked me to engage my brain.  And it had Stephen Berkoff in it, which was nice.

Review by Helen Nicol

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