Narcissistic and grasping, Hoefgen nevertheless finds his opportunity for escaping his nobody status for the bright lights of Berlin. As the Nazis rise to power, like the German literary figure of Faust who sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, Hoefgen sells his soul to the National Socialist Party.
While his wife flees Germany and fights in France to undermine the Nazis and his friends are carted off to concentration camps, Hoefgen begins to perform Nazi propaganda plays to promote his own name. He operates in a state of denial about who his collaborators are and ingratiates himself to the cruel, authoritarian General (Rolf Hoppe), modeled on the Nazi second in command Hermann Goering. The film becomes a scathing critique of the countless Germans who also profited from their devil's bargain in supporting the Nazi regime.
The theme of Mephisto (1981), a joint German-Hungarian-Austrian production, is one of artists dealing with life in a totalitarian regime and it has been a reoccurring idea in the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's work, including Taking Sides (2001), Colonel Redl (1985), Hanussen (1988) and Sunshine (1999). As Szabo told critic Marty Fairbairn, "Vanity is the artist's weakness; it enables seduction." Szabo teamed up again with Brandauer in Colonel Redl and Hanussen, the three films Szabo made with Brandauer becoming part of Szabo's trilogy on European history.
Szabo was born in 1938 and studied at the Budapest Academy of Film. His interest in the artist's responsibility and role was undoubtedly shaped by his own experiences in Hungary. During the country's state of political upheaval and dictatorship following World War II, millions of Hungarians were spied upon and some 200,000 were imprisoned after the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution.
Based on a novel by the son of acclaimed Jewish German novelist Thomas Mann, Klaus Mann's 1936 book was based on the life of German actor Gustaf Gryndgens, married to his sister Erika. The Mann family fled Germany under the Nazis (with Klaus eventually serving in the U.S. Army during World War II) though Gryndgens remained in Germany. Gryndgens' career did incredibly well under the Nazis. When he was arrested by the Allies after the war he was finally released when it was disclosed that he had managed to save a number of his friends from persecution by the Nazis.
Gryndgens' adopted son eventually attempted to have the novel banned when it was finally published in West Germany in the early Sixties.
Mephisto writer Klaus Mann was reportedly so distraught over his inability to find a publisher for his novel, that he died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1949.
By nearly every estimation, it was Austrian-born former stage actor Klaus Maria Brandauer's electric performance that made Mephisto such an international sensation. The film won him an actor award at Cannes along with its own Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film and Best Screenplay. The buzz around Brandauer increased his own actorly profile and led to a role as the villain Maximilian Largo in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983). Brandauer was nominated for an Academy Award® for playing Meryl Streep's husband in Out of Africa (1985).
Director: Istvan Szabo
Producer: Manfred Durniok
Screenplay: Peter Dobai and Istvan Szabo based on a novel by Klaus Mann
Cinematography: Lajos Koltai
Production Design: Jozsef Romvari
Music: Zdenko Tamassy
Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer (Hendrik Hoefgen), Krystyna Janda (Barbara Bruckner), Ildiko Bansagi (Nicoletta Von Niebuhr), Karin Boyd (Juliette Martens), Rolf Hoppe (The General), Christine Harbort (Lotte Lindenthal), Gyorgy Cserhalmi (Hans Miklas), Christian Grashof (Cesar Von Muck).
by Felicia Feaster