“Before the Devil steals your soul, he’ll steal your password.” – Philipp Humm
Philipp Humm’s newly released arthouse feature The Last Faust is an ambitious adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic 19th century play about a man who makes a pact with the devil. Encompassing aspects of both Part One and Part Two of Faust, the feature is being billed as ‘the only definitive filmed version’ of one of the great works of German literature.
But before you gleefully rush to buy it, you should know that this isn’t Faust as Goethe wrote it. For a start, it’s set in the future: 2059, when – so the prologue tells us – an artificial intelligence network that connects people, machines, and synthetic beings is about to wipe out the human race. There’s also time-travel involved. Somehow.
None of which is a problem really, since the ‘deal with the devil’ story is just as relevant today (and presumably will be in the future) as it ever was, with discussions around the ethical uses of technology, and questions about the nature of of good and evil bouncing back and forth on social media on a daily basis. Is it a coincidence that former tech giant CEO Faust (Martin Hancock) bears a passing resemblance to the real world creator of a frequently lambasted social media network? Perhaps not.
After a hasty prologue we jump into the film just before the end of the world, with current tech CEO Dr. Goodfellow (Steven Berkoff – watchable as ever) relaying Faust’s story to his AI companion, to be recorded and broadcast to anyone who might still be alive. This recording is used as a framing device for the story, with Goodfellow filling us in on what happens between a series of scenes featuring Faust, Mephisto, and various other characters.
Whilst Goodfellow’s narration is set in the real world of this particular universe, the scenes involving other characters are set in a theatre space, sometimes obviously on a stage, and include dance, projection, and pop-culture iconography, as well as a level of theatricality in the acting style and costume design that at times leans towards opera or perhaps even pantomime. This has a fracturing effect on the film as a whole, and it is rather jarring to be sent back and forth between what feels like serious theatre, modern music video, and sci-fi melodrama.
The whole endeavour seems as though it would fit better entirely in one realm or the other. It would make an enjoyable stage play, with its strong use of visuals and lighting. And it could be a darkly grim sci-fi epic, moody and full of menace. But in trying to be both things at once it loses much of its potential.
It’s a fascinating interpretation, and one that no doubt will be foist upon students of literature and theatre for years to come, confusing as much as enlightening them. As for its present audience, they might also come away scratching their heads. “It’s certainly colourful,” one can hear them say, “but is it good?”.
The Last Faust is available now on all major digital platforms.