Dir: Istvan Szabo, 1981. Starring: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Krystyna Janda, Karin Boyd. Foreign. English, Hungarian, German.

Mephistopheles, or Mephisto, is a character from German folklore that is an evil demon, or more suitably, the devil. The demon element to the character appears in the German legend of Faust in which an ambitious man makes a pact with the devil in order to obtain ultimate power and great success. This legend plays a huge part in this film, though the story is also heavily based on Klaus Mann's novel Mephisto and the life of Gustaf Grünfgens, the theater manager, actor, and director who was revered as one of the best of his time. Grünfgens's career prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime was fruitful, and being a sympathizer with the Third Reich certainly helped him prosper and continue to do so after the fall of Hitler. Grünfgens was also bipolar, for lack of a better word, when it came to his morals, sexuality, and political affiliations. Knowing this information may or may not take away some of the magic of the film. However, Klaus Maria Brandauer's performance is more than a stormy reincarnation of Grünfgens and the Faustian legend. It shows the upside of having an egoist portray a person who is so sure of themselves that they deny their affiliation with true evil.
br /> Brandauer plays Hendrik Hoefgen, an up-and-coming actor and theater director in Hamburg, Germany. In the beginning, Hoefgen wanted to take the stiffness from the stage by eliminating the distance between audience and performer. His aim was to create a new theater, full of vibrant and charismatic characters who could move audiences in a way that had never been done before. He also romanticized the idea of bohemian theater—one in which miners and laborers could feel comfortable and included. This led to his passionate pursuit of a revolution through theater, though there was little to revolt against in the beginning.

Hoefgen's mistress, Juliette, is the first romantic interest we're introduced to. She's saucy and neurotic, more so than Hoefgen, and her jazz dancing inspires much of his movements onstage. After a performance he meets Barbara (Krystyna Janda), a good friend of one of his admirers and a woman of high stature. He falls in love with her and the two quickly get married, though he keeps his mistress and returns to her for a healthy batch of honesty and criticism. As newlyweds, Hendrick and Barbara quarrel quite often, and the subject usually comes from their political arguments and the class differences between them. Hendrick has lived a modest life and had to fight for his courage and stature by building his ego, while Barbara stumbled onto good fortune simply by birth. Barbara is a pseudo-supporter of the Nazis, though she would never want to see them in power. Hendrick is quite passive when it comes to politics and feels that, for an actor, there is nothing outside of the stage. Truth be told, he opposes the Nazis but couldn't ever imagine them in power. Life goes on smoothly as he gets outstanding work portraying the countrymen of various nations in the theater. His popularity grows and hits its peak when he plays the role of Mephisto. But just when he seems to have everything, Hitler comes into power and his life becomes unrecognizable.

Those in the arts flee Germany because the majority of them are now blacklisted for their unpatriotic work, and this includes Hendrick. And though this troubles him because he only wants to perform in German theater, he is saved from a short exile by a friend who has Nazi acquaintances who want the revival of classic German stage work. Those who welcome him back into Germany are only interested in him for one reason: his portrayal of Mephisto. The character changes with each performance as Hendrick struggles with his own demons and comes to the conclusion that his wildest dreams in the theater can become a reality. All he has to do is please the Nazis and play ball, and everything else will follow suit. But to do this he has to keep his life private, ruin friendships, watch others die, and be willing to forfeit his soul.

Brandauer is not exactly well-known, though many have seen him in Out of Africa and the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. Despite his lack of popularity in America, he is very popular in Germany. Perhaps his ego was solidified by his time as a theater actor, but whatever the source, he practically claimed the role in this film without any doubts. He understood that he was mirroring Grünfgens, who he still thinks is the most important figure in German theater. He also stated that he thinks “his life was theater.” This assuredness and familiarity with both drama and film did in fact make Brandauer the perfect person for the role, and his presence on the screen is both unnerving and refreshing. If I could compare it with something, I'd say that it resembles an exorcism. The rest of the cast were also wonderful, especially Karin Boyd who played his mistress Juliette. In a way, she was his humanity and his weakness. Boyd is also the only black German star that I've seen in film.

Aside from the cast and the amazing costumes and set design, I really enjoyed the historical perspective of the film as a whole. Almost every film that mentions Hitler and the Third Reich has something to do with the holocaust and is told through the point-of-view of those who suffered under their rule in that respect. This is one of those rare occasions where you can see the impact Hitler had on the arts, as well the opposition of blacklisted artists who were forced to flee or adapt to their dogma under duress. Mephisto is a stunning piece of work and the winner of the 1982 Academy Award for Best Foreign film. Today that might not mean as much, but I assure you, the Academy couldn't have made a better choice that year.

Mephisto won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Hungary) in 1982.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 19, 2011 8:41pm
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