István Szabó

Hungary, 1981



Drama, history


Performing arts, Fascism and Nazism in Europe


Mephisto is the title of a 1981 film adaptation of Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto, directed by István Szabó, and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Höfgen. The film was a co-production between West Germany, Hungary and Austria.
Mephisto was the first ever Hungarian film to win the award for Best Foreign Language Film, at the 54th Academy Awards, and the only Academy awarded film to be distributed by Analysis Film Releasing Corp. Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Höfgen delivered one of the finest pieces of acting ever to come out of Europe.
The film, a compelling melodrama, is loosely based on the Faustian legend. The film’s main character, in his craving for professional success and social status, overcomes conscience and personal beliefs to become a leading figure in the Nazi cultural establishment. The first part of the film depicts the frustration the passionate actor experiences while struggling to advance his career with parts in provincial theaters. Caught in an endless search for the ideal role, Hendrik performs the part of Mephisto with such brilliance and mastery that an amazed Nazi benefactor comes to his aid. This is an opportunity for Hendrik to renounce political affiliations of the past and establish himself as
a leading acting figure in Nazi Germany. While his wife, friends and colleagues leave, or protest against the regime and its brutality, the self-absorbed Hendrik remains lured by the promises made to him. At the height of his success, the film’s main character realizes the regime’s corrupt influence and the true meaning of his own compliance, the profound moral compromises he has made. By exploiting his relationship with Third Reich elite cycles to help friends, he maintains an illusion of freedom.

Landscape: the vast, summer-scorched Hungarian plains where whitewashed buildings, cloaked men and their horses appear to be the only occupants. It seems a world apart. However, it is a world that is able to communicate a specific vision of Hungarian history and mankind’s story, where the powerful slowly, but surely triumph over the weak. The film is so precisely choreographed that the patterns play on the mind until they become clear and obvious in their meanings. The camera style is beautiful but almost merciless. If the film can be criticised for lack of emotion, it can’t be for absence of power, or cold appreciation of the situation it illustrates.

Later, with films such as The Confrontation and Red Psalm, Jancso’s work begins to lose something through familiarity. It is, also, his obsession with half-naked girls and patterns that becomes enervating. When he left Hungary for Italy, in the 1970s, making erotic films such as Private Vices and Public Virtues (based on the Mayerling story), it seemed he had little of value to say, or no way out from repeating himself, or exaggerating his weaknesses.

Nevertheless, his first few films were astonishing, whether dealing with Kossuth’s rebels in the 1860s, or Hungarian revolution’s aftermath in 1919. These films bitterly analysed the history of Jancso’s persecuted country and commented on the nature of violence. No one has tried to do what he did, the way he did it. This is his formidable legacy.The film’s bitter irony lies in the protagonist’s ultimate dream to become Germany’s greatest thespian, playing Hamlet and Mephisto. To achieve this Hendrik will sell his soul only to realise that he is not actaully playing Mephisto, but Faustus; it is the Nazi leader, modeled on Hermann Göring, who is the real Mephisto. The film is complex and astonishing. Multilayered, it functions in many levels being a fierce political criticism, an intriguing character study and an insightful meditation on the acting profession.



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