Mephisto (1981)

I wonder what took me so long to watch Mephisto for the first time. István Szabó‘s movie is an absolutely riveting and chilling tale of one man’s betrayal of everything he once believed in and all the many self-deceiving lies he tells himself.  I have always been fond of Klaus Maria Brandauer but this must be one of his very best roles. He is simply astounding.

Mephisto is loosely based on Klaus Mann’s eponymous novel. The story is quickly summarized. Henrik Hoefgen is a famous actor in Hamburg in the early 30s. Hamburg is provincial compared to Berlin and Hoefgen has dreams and hopes and sees himself already as Germany’s most famous actor in the future. While he is most certainly very talented he is equally narcissistic. On the other hand he is full of idealism and flirts with communism. When he plays Mephisto in Goethe’s Faust, he is discovered and receives an invitation to Berlin. Finally his dreams come true. He will be an actor at Germany’s leading theater. In Berlin, as well, it is the role of Mephisto which brings him a lot of admirers, some of which are prominent Nazis. It doesn’t take long and the Nazis try to instrumentalize him. In love with himself and his success he doesn’t see this at first. Soon he becomes the governments pet actor, speaks in its name at openings and supports the government.

While he may be oblivious of the consequences at first, when he starts to realize he has sold out, he begins to lie to himself and pretends it isn’t the artist’s duty to be political. He even goes so far as to pretend that an artist lives outside of everything.

Mephisto is a riveting character portrait and an in-depth analysis of what can become of someone whose conformity and lust for success make him forget that he has a responsibility. The movie looks especially into the responsibility of the artists. While many chose to leave the country as soon as possible, those who stayed often pretended it was their duty not to abandon the country in its hour of need and that those who left were cowards. It’s obvious that the famous actor Gustaf Gründgens, who also worked with Klaus Mann, has served as a model for Hoefgen.

Mephisto is certainly one of the best movies I have seen this year; it’s intelligent and entertaining and the acting is amazing.  So far this is my favourite of István Szabó’s movies. I haven’t seen Colonel Redl yet, – equally starring Klaus Maria Brandauer – but I’m very keen now.

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7 thoughts on “Mephisto (1981)

  1. nem baj says:

    Yes, it is an excellent movie, and probably Szabó’s best this far. It may help to remember than in 1981, Hungary was still the People’s Republic of Hungary — so a lot of what the director’s conveying can be understood in the light of Szabó himself living and creating within another totalitarian regime.

    Have you seen Bertolucci’s The Conformist?

  2. Guy Savage says:

    caroline: I tried to watch this a few years ago, and it was a mess. I later learned that I’d watched a heavily edited version and I meant to get back and try it again as the premise was interesting.

    I recommend Colonel Redl BTW

  3. the war movie buff says:

    How is this a war movie? I reviewed Col. Redl a while back and found it overrated. Mephisto sounds interesting, but I’m guessing you would think I would not like it. I might just watch it anyway

    • No, I actually thought you would like it. The acting is fanatstic. He is an obnoxious character.
      I should have called it a war time movie? It’ certainly is, the main topic is the rise of Nazism.

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