Hungary’s first Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, István Szabó’s 1981 opus Mephisto, receives a re-release from Kino Lorber Repertory and 4K restoration from the original camera negatives held at the Hungarian National Film Archive, eerily timed for its subject matter of fascism filling a power vacuum of national crisis. It begins at the height of splendor, at a German opera hall removed from the economic ruin of the crumbling Weimar Republic outside. Expressionistic stage lighting casts sharp lines of luminescence across the opera’s diva, and her aria is shot in wide shots situated in the perspectives of the audience and of an all-seeing eye gazing down from the rafters. The performance is thunderously applauded, but backstage, actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), smashes his dressing room in a rage, furious over his minor role in the production. Despite the opulence of the venue, Hendrik considers the theater provincial, and he deplores that he has not yet broken out as a leading man.

The early stretch of the film follows the actor as he rehearses and performs wherever he can in the hopes of catching his big break, though much time is spent wallowing in his misery and preening egomania as he complains of his lack of success and holds court with his colleagues about his catty proclamations. Hendrik’s talent is obvious (we see him practicing dance, song and drama), but his lack of success undercuts his inflated sense of importance, and his friends are alternately engaged and exasperated by him. Szabó captures the intensity of the man in wide-angle close-ups that give Hendrik the appearance of leaning forward so far it seems as if his nose might punch through the screen, emphasizing his overeagerness.

All around Hendrik’s solipsism, however, the real world keeps intruding. Communists and Nazis vie for cultural control, and actors feel themselves drawn to certain kinds of political art. Hendrik, too, claims to have political awareness; he complains of performing for bourgeois audiences and dreams of crafting theater for the working class, and he brutally mocks a colleague, Hans (György Cserhalmi) for being a card-carrying Nazi in an industry with so many Jews. Yet it quickly becomes obvious that Hendrik holds no real beliefs outside of his own self-promotion: he can barely sit through a communist theater rehearsal before exploding at the inexperience of the socialist actors, ranting “even revolutions need professionals” as he stomps off in a huff.

And, crucially, when the Nazis do come to power, Hendrik is unfazed by an election that sends shockwaves of panic through his industry as intellectuals, Jews and others already singled out by the party fret for their safety. He dismisses Hitler as a “blowhard” as friends and even his wife, Barbara (Krystyna Janda), make plans to flee the country. With so many artists leaving, the Nazis make an effort to recruit those who stay to promoting their cause, and Hendrik is soon co-opted by the party, taken under the direct wing of an unnamed general (Rolf Hoppe) clearly meant to be Göring. Every meeting between the two is shot with wide compositions and precise blocking not entirely unlike the scenes of live theater. The grandeur of the Nazi Party is predicated on preserving a perceived classical German identity, which necessitates ensuring the culture reflects that image, but plunges into cold palettes of ice-blue and metallic grays emphasize the hollow militarism beneath Nazi opulence. Szabó merely has to tweak the style established in the first hour to embody this takeover, communicating how subtly the party’s methods had swept into every element of German society before suddenly seizing control of it.

Hendrik’s collaboration nets a few gains for friends, getting raises for some of his colleagues and helping others to avoid jail time for their communist associations, but his willful ignorance of mounting Nazi atrocity is predicated on his narcissistic desire to become a star. In particular, Hendrik uses his new connections to secure an extended run playing Mephistopheles in a production of Faust that is his crowning achievement, a chance for him to put his physical and comic talents into a being of evil who cajoles and seduces. Hendrik carouses and enjoys himself throughout the film, but it’s only on stage as the demon that he looks truly happy, basking in the limelight as the most talked-about stage actor in Germany. Of course, the film establishes parallels between Goethe’s story and Hendrik’s own thirst for power and fame, suggesting he is more of a Faust than a Mephistopheles.

Mephisto excels at depicting the boiling-frog manner in which complacency allows extremism to take hold. Everyone around Hendrik may recognize the evil that the Nazis represent, but the actor is blind to the mounting forces that see him as nothing more than a useful idiot for propaganda. Hendrik lets friendships and relationships fail in pursuit of his career, but perhaps nothing about him is as sad as the extent to which he comes to see himself as truly important to the Nazis and even a personal friend to the general, who clarifies how little he thinks of the man when Hendrik presumes too much. Hendrik allows himself to believe he is a cultural force, but when his head gets too big and he faces the wrath of the party he helped sell to the public, he’s left, far too late, meekly protesting “I’m only an actor.”

Watch at this virtual theater!

  • Ulver: Flowers of Evil

    Stuck in a rare resting pattern, Norwegian shapeshifters Ulver offer up another slice of t…
  • Tricky: Fall to Pieces

    Driven by a recent loss, Tricky has put forward arguably his most soulful, compelling work…
  • Bill Frisell: Valentine

    A breezy combination of blues, folk and jazz, Frisell’s latest is the sound of a maestro g…
  • Red Shoes & the Seven Dwarfs

    A cheerful fantasy – nothing more or, thankfully, less. …
  • Residue

    For every lyrical sequence that mixes nostalgia and trauma with ease, there are countless …
  • Oeuvre: Miyazaki: Howl’s Moving Castle

    A cri de coeur against rampant militarism whose intensity ends up diminishing the usual li…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Ulver: Flowers of Evil

Stuck in a rare resting pattern, Norwegian shapeshifters Ulver offer up another slice of t…