Mephisto (1981)

Directed by István Szabó

A German stage actor finds unexpected success and mixed blessings in the popularity of his performance in a Faustian play as the Nazis take power in pre-WWII Germany. As his associates and friends flee or are ground under by the Nazi terror, the popularity of his character supercedes his own existence until he finds that his best performance is keeping up appearances for his Nazi patrons.

Unless I'm being a little obtuse, this film establishes a simplistic moral hierarchy between the characters based on how prescient they are regarding the future direction of Germany in the early 1930s. Whilst the 'good' characters somehow seem to have a perfect, certain and clairvoyant view of the 13 years after Hitler is "voted in", the bad characters are the usual venal Nazi types or are collaborationists who make obvious excuses for their own advancement. I don't dispute that there is some sort of truth behind these tired formulas, but it doesn't exactly make for an engaging piece of art, nor an effective piece of psychological Vergangenheitsbewältigung — indeed, the film's reductive and binary view appears to be intended to flatter the audience, who, watching this in the 1980s, is granted little autonomy as it must know with what happened "next" and, by extension, is forced to identify with the 'good' characters.

There is surely something of Klaus Kinski in Klaus Maria Brandauer's portrayal of Hendrik Höfgen. Equally obvious, at least to me, as the slight queer coding of his acting, and it struck me that the character of Juliette Martens (Karin Boyd) plays Hendrik's secret girlfriend who frets about being exposed; could her 'verboten' status as Hendrik's "negro" mistress really be a symbolic stand-in for an equally verboten homosexuality? If so, it was a shame that for all the apparent bravery of an (acted) film purporting to reveal the dark side of acting shies away from that.

All this, unfortunately, keeps me at a distance from admiring the self-conceit of the main protagonist and the broader commentary about the role of acting and 'performance' in our public, political and private lives. Indeed, does this film tell us anything new and insightful about the rise of Nazis, beyond their already well-established skill at instrumentalising the most self-absorbed and vain? I don't even think the film makes a good case that egocentrism leads inexorably to Nazism. Anyway, here's hoping that someone reworks this one day into a film about Wilhelm Furtwängler... a kind of Nazi Tár, maybe.