By CARYN JAMES
Published: October 26, 1994 （New York Times）
Marionettes, dolls and pieces of clay have never seemed as sinister and surreal as they do in the films of the brilliant Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. His shorts, many evoking Poe or Kafka, bring the menace of the subconscious to life, and his extraordinary feature "Alice" depicts an eerie wonderland darker than any Lewis Carroll dared. His new feature, "Faust," combines his usual mix of animated elements with a great deal of live action to tell an updated version of the old devilish story; the result will probably be more intriguing to Svankmajer cultists than to newcomers.
Mr. Svankmajer's Faust (Petr Cepek) is a dour-looking man who lives in today's Prague and is first seen walking out of a subway. He is handed a map with a large red mark on it, and eventually follows the directions to a ramshackle building that conceals an abandoned dressing room. There he puts on Faust's costume, begins reading from a script of Goethe's play and finds himself in the middle of a peculiar experience that is part real, part theatrical.
In stop-motion photography, a piece of clay becomes a baby whose body remains the same while his head ages before Faust's eyes, becoming a boy, an adult with Faust's face and, finally, a skeleton. Mephistopheles is a life-size marionette, and a jester is a human wearing a large mask over his head. The characters speak in excerpts from the Faust plays of Goethe and Marlowe, among other sources, and there are snippets from Gounod's opera.
Mr. Svankmajer's premise is that each age makes its own pact with the devil, and in interviews he has explained the political implications of his film. His Faust has passively accepted capitalism as easily as he used to swallow totalitarianism. "Faust is manipulated like a puppet," Mr. Svankmajer has said.
While a Faust who surrenders his soul easily is a radical revision of the legend, the idea presents a serious dramatic problem. A passive Faust, especially one who looks like an ordinary man, is not very compelling. It takes far too long for Faust to make his bargain with Mephistopheles. And by relying so much on live action, Mr. Svankmajer loses much of the bizarre, imagistic power of his earlier work.
"Faust" opens today at Film Forum 1. There are glimpses of Mr. Svankmajer's greatness here, but viewers who have never seen his work before may wonder why so many people rightly regard him as a film maker of the first rank.
FAUST Written and directed by Jan Svankmajer; based on texts by Goethe, Marlowe and Grabbe; animation, Bedrich Glaser; director of photography, Svatopluk Maly; editor, Marie Zemanova; music, Charles Gounod and Johann Sebastian Bach; produced by Jaromir Kallista; released by Zeitgeist Films. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. Through Nov. 8. Running time: 97 minutes. This film is not rated. WITH: Petr Cepek.