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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István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999)

I’m in two minds about István Szabó’s epic movie Sunshine. It tells the story of a family of Hungarian Jews, the Sonnenscheins (which means Sunshine in German), from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th. While I think it told me a lot about Hungary and the treatment of Jews in Hungary, I was far less thrilled about the length (3hrs) and the choice to have the three main characters, grandfather, father and son played by the very same actor, namely Ralph Fiennes. I would have found this artificial with any actor but given my dislike of Fiennes, it added annoyance. If you do not mind seeing the same actor in three different roles and are fond of Ralph Fiennes, you will probably like this movie a lot. I do not understand why Szabó chose to do it like this, why couldn’t there be three actors? I remember the Archers chose the same approach in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which Deborah Kerr plays three different women but that worked much better.

The Sonnescheins are a modest family but then the patriarch invents a recipe for a tonic which makes them incredibly rich. As a direct result of their social ascendance, the two sons, Gustav and Ignaz, both study and become doctors, of medicine and law respectively. While Ignaz is loyal to the Emperor, Gustav feels more and more alienated by monarchy and becomes a communist. WWI changes not only Hungary but Europe as a whole. The biggest change in the lives of the Sonnenscheins’s however is that they choose to change their name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian sounding Sors. Long before WWII breaks out, the Jews are seen as a nuisance and it is very hard for them to integrate.

Ignaz’s and Valerie’s son Adam becomes the Hungarian fencing champion and wins at the Olympics in 1936. After having changed their name, the Sors also change their religion and the family converts to Catholicism. Still, this doesn’t help them, when WWII breaks out, the family first lives in the ghetto, some are killed, some escape and Adam and his son Ivan are sent to a concentration camp where Adam is tortured and killed. His son will never forgive himself that he just stood there and did nothing. After the war he joins the communist party. Anti-Zionist sentiments are spreading. The government changes often and depending on who is in charge, other groups are persecuted but what they all seem to have in common is that anti-Semitism reigns again.

When the end of the communist state has finally come, Ivan realizes that the only way to be really free, is to be true to yourself. He decides to change his name back to Sonnenschein and to be proud of his heritage, no matter what government and changes the future will bring.

While I wasn’t blown away by the movie and would have preferred if the main character had been played by three different actors instead of one, the movie isn’t bad at all. It had a lot of thought-provoking elements. There is the incident in the concentration camp in which three guards control 2000 prisoners. Ivan’s uncle later tells him that it is unforgivable that they didn’t do anything. This is a reproach one hears occasionally. People don’t understand why 2000 wouldn’t fight against 3 or 10 even if those were armed. The movie implies an answer which is interesting. It is obvious that if they had fought back the guards, some of the Jews would have been killed. The majority would have been saved but that would have needed the sacrifice of a few others.

Another interesting element is the fact that Hungarians sent Jews to the camps and not Germans. There were a lot of collaborators among the Hungarians. The movie underlines that the Hungarian society, whether it was during the monarchy or later under communism, was to a large part anti-semitic.

What I really liked is that the movie focusses on one family only and like that manages to give a much better feeling of the incredible changes which took place. To enhance authenticity Szabó included some original footage which in some cases was quite chilling. When Adam takes part in the Olympics of 1936, Szabó included original footage of the opening in which we see Hitler.

Because it’s a very long movie, it’s a very complex movie and I know I didn’t do it justice. There are for example some very troubled love stories which I didn’t mention in my summary but which are quite important. I liked the story between Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignaz but didn’t care for the love triangle including Adam, Hannah (Molly Parker) and Greta (Rachel Weisz).

I would recommend Sunshine if you like epic films and have an interest in the history of Hungary and the Holocaust from another perspective.