There are certain movies that carry with them the near “classic”. This is a must-see for film snobs. Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story leap to attention. Add to these is “Mephisto”.
Mephisto won the ’82 Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Film and is considered as one of the best films to come out Hungary. The film delves deeply into the actor as cultural pawn or as a symbol of the theatrical totalitarianism that Nazism was
The film adapts the story of Mephistopheles and Doctor Faustus by having the main character Hendrik Höfgen abandon his conscience and continue to act and ingratiate himself with the Nazi Party and so keep and improve his job and social position.
The plot’s bitter irony is that the protagonist’s most fond dream is to play Mephisto – but in order to achieve this dream he in effect sells his soul, and realizes too late that in reality he is Faustus; it is the Nazi leader having a major role in the film (modeled on Hermann Göring) who is the true Mephisto.
Both the film and Mann’s 1936 novel mirror the career of Mann’s brother-in-law, Gustaf Gründgens, who is considered by many to have supported the Nazi Party and abandoned his previous political views for personal gain rather than conscience. (Playing Mephisto was indeed the peak of Gründgens’ career, though in reality this was long after the fall of the Nazis.) However, Mann’s book is satirical, making Höfgen more a lampoon than a character in his own right, while the film offers a more realistic exploration of a flawed but recognizably human character
It would be wrong to simplify such an obvious analysis on the theme of power’s corrupt influence. Whatever the actor achieves, he remains a servant of the theatre. His patronage can be taken away, played with like a toy, as if relationships built on whimsy are flags without followers.
Hendrik’s naked ambition does not deter lovers. He has charm and a vaulted arrogance shaped for all occasions. His passion is as genuine as a falcon’s fall and his energy drives a lance through those who stand in doubt. He can be invincible; he can be overwhelmed by despair. Self-absorption comes with a desire for applause. What he has is self-belief and that’s rare. If others are swept aside on his march to the pinnacle, so be it. Destiny’s drum beats to his tune. Or not. Or what?
As Hitler’s grip on the country takes hold and brown shirts feel safe in their attack on Jews in the streets, Hendrik’s colleagues escape to America, or into secret cells, preparing for resistance. His wife leaves. His friends beg him to join them. He knows the dangers, he says. He will remain to withhold the glorious name of Shakespeare against a clamour for nationalist productions. Fear stalks the corridors of power. He feels it and realizes, at the height of his success, that he has to stay with them now, because to renege would lose everything, something his compatriots feel he has already done, and so he complies, winning small victories that give the illusion of freedom.
As the film progresses one becomes aware of the myriad of layers to Hendrik’s persona and eventually you will begin to peel away the various masks he so ingeniously hides behind. While his onstage performances as Mephisto are dramatic and powerful the essence of the Mephistophelian mythos is lived out off stage away from the bright lights. The manner in which he refuses to acknowledge the devastating and threatening effects of Nazism on Germany, along with the mental machinations employed by the deluded artist to justify his choice to stay in the Fatherland are all a reflection of a spirit evil he has so unwittingly embraced.
Mephisto is a powerful parable about fame as a disease of the spirit and as a personal and political masterpiece, Mephisto has few contenders.
- Directed by István Szabó
- Written by Péter Dobai; Klaus Mann (novel) & István Szabó
- Casting: Klaus Maria Brandauer; Krystyna Janda; Ildikó Bánsági
- Release dates: 29 April 1981 (Germany)& 8 October 1981 (Hungary)
- Run time of 144 minutes
- Country : Hungary
- Language: English; Hungarian & German