Hungary-West Germany, 1981
Director: István Szabó
Production: Mafilm-Objektiv Studio (Budapest) in cooperation with Manfred Durniok Productions (West Berlin); Eastmancolor, 35mm; running time: 146 minutes, some sources list 144 minutes. Released 1981. Filmed in Germany.
Producer: Manfred Durniok; screenplay: István Szabó and Péter Dobai, from the novel by Klaus Mann; photography: Lajos Koltai; editor: Zsuzsa Zsa Kany; music: Zdenkó Tamássy.
Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer ( Hendrik Höfgen ); Krystyna Janda ( Barbara Bruckner ); Ildikó Bánsági ( Nicoletta von Niebuhr ); Karin Boyd ( Juliette Martens ); Rolf Hoppe ( The General ); Christine Harbort ( Lotte Lindenthal ); Gyögy Cserhalmi ( Hans Miklas ); Martin Hellberg ( Professor ).
Award: Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Spangenberg, Eberhard, Karriere eines Romans: Mephisto, Klaus Mann, und Gustav Gründgens: Ein dokumentarischer Bericht aus Deutschland und dem Exil 1925–81 , Munich, 1982.
Paech, Joachim, editor, Literatur und Film: Mephisto , Frankfurt, 1984.
Szabó, István, "Mephistopheles," in Hungarofilm Bulletin (Budapest), no. 5, 1980.
Vrdlovec, Z., in Ekran (Ljubljana), no. 2, 1981.
Fenyves, G., "Leider kann man einen Film nur einmal drehen," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), March 1981.
Moskowitz, G., in Variety (New York), 18 March 1981.
New York Times , 29 September 1981.
Györffy, M., in Filmkultura (Budapest), September-October 1981.
Robinson, David, "My Homeland," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1981.
Auty, Martyn, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1981.
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Forbes, Jill, in Films and Filming (London), December 1981.
De Santi, G., and P. Maté, in Cineforum (Bergamo), December 1981.
Bader, K. L., in Filmfaust (Frankfurt), December 1981-January 1982.
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* * *
István Szabó, probably the most engagingly intelligent of the younger Hungarian filmmakers who began working after 1956,
The idea behind Mephisto is a promising one—to explore the psyche of a chameleon-like actor living through the rise of Nazism in Germany (the filmmakers actually choose not to specify the precise time or place) and accommodating himself to the new regime in any way necessary to maintain his position and acclaim. Most promising of all is the fact that this central character is based on the life of Gustav Gründgens (1899–1963), Germany's most commanding actor, theatrical director, and impresario of his generation. (Among his film roles, Gründgens played the wily chief of the underworld in Fritz Lang's M in 1931.) The screenplay, which Szabó wrote with Péter Dobai, is based on the 1936 roman à clef , also titled Mephisto , by Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann and brother of Erika, to whom Gründgens was married before she fled from Hitler's Germany. (The title is an ironic reference to the actor's celebrated role, Mephistopheles in Faust .)
In Szabó's film, the Gründgens character is named Hendrik Höfgen. There are intimations that the fictional Höfgen shares some of Gründgen's early leftist leanings as he embarks on a propitious acting career. To keep that career afloat in the mounting tide of fascism, Höfgen ingratiates himself with a powerful leader in the new regime—a proxy for Göring, whose pretégé Gründgens became. And, like Gründgens, Höfgen chooses to remain in his position rather than avail himself of an opportunity to emigrate. Mephisto ends before the war, as its version of the Gründgens character begins to see himself becoming a puppet of his protectors.
The film is brilliant and enthralling, a whirlwind of color and motion that suggests its protagonist's rapid success and self-absorption. A virtuosic achievement as a succession to Szabó's finely modulated previous work, Mephisto is near-perfect within the scope of its ambition—to delineate the course of an opportunist whose life is nothing more or less than the sum of all the roles he plays. But its tone of moral indignation is all too easy, its moral crux so very familiar and predictable, and its rendering of the central figure a pat oversimplification of the unacknowledged character who inspired it. Klaus Maria Brandauer's manic performance in the part of Höfgen, as is apt for this film, represents a self-illuminating style of acting that one esteems or rejects according to one's critical disposition toward work of its kind. Neither the role nor Brandauer's portrayal suggests whether Höfgen is a genuinely great actor (as Gründgens was) or simply an effectively truculent and narcissistic one. (The other performers are quite fine, although the many Hungarians in the cast have been dubbed into German for the film's distribution outside Hungary.)
Klaus Mann's aim was to condemn Gründgens. Szabó sought to universalize the character, "a man who considers it his only possibility in life to make people accept him." But beyond the simple figure who appears in Mephisto lies the complex and ambivalent case of Gründgens himself. Despite his tacit support for Hitler, he was cleared after the war and continued his prominence in the theatres of both West and East Germany. He was even credited with upholding artistic standards during the Third Reich (Höfgen participates in plays reinterpreted to fit fascist ideology) and with helping many who were threatened by the Nazis (Höfgen does obtain an exit visa for his lover, a black actress).
In the shadow of Stalinism, many Eastern European directors have made films set around the time of World War II, with safe, anti-Nazi topics, when current issues could not be broached. Szabó understands very well the real difficulties and ambiguities of individuals who chose to continue living and working under compromising political circumstances, and in fact his own contemporary films have frequently focused on their dilemmas with sympathy and resonance. With Mephisto and the aspiration for wide popularity, it seems he has limited his scrutiny to an extreme case and held it at a safe distance.