Blu-ray Review: Mephisto | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, January 16th, 2021  


Studio: Kino Lorber

Jul 28, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Once Hendrik Höfgen’s final stich of moral fiber has frayed in Mephisto, his ethical unraveling is so complete that it’s debatable whether there was any fortitude there at all.

We first meet Hendrik, played with lithe charm and menace by Klaus Maria Brandauer, as a struggling provincial actor in Hamburg, Germany. His Marxist theatre troupe performs for a working class audience, and he chides a fellow performer for being an early fascist sympathizer. He lashes out at his wife, criticizing her polite bourgeoisie tolerance for the growing Nazi party.

But when he learns that Nazis have actually claimed power in 1933, his faltering anti-fascist bluster quickly melts away. He bargains and rationalizes, asking, “Why should it concern me? I don’t have anything to fear, I’m from the Rhineland.” He pleads, as if to a higher power, that he’s “only an actor,” what could he possibly do?

To Hendrik, the Nazis’ rise is just an unfair inconvenience that could derail his long-awaited stardom in Berlin. He has achieved fame with his devilish performance as Mephisto, the demon to which Faust sells his soul in the German folktale. To leave Germany or denounce Nazism would sacrifice his career, which he quickly prioritizes over the safety of friends, family and fellow countrymen.

And so Hendrik makes his own Faustian bargain with fascists and the remaining actors who did not flee or resist. Hendrik himself is given every opportunity to do the right thing. He is implored by his best friend to take a stand against Nazism on stage, others attempt to convince him to leave the country.

Instead he assuages his guilt by using his influence to secure safety for those close to him—he arranges for his black girlfriend to safely leave Germany, and he hides a friend in danger.

But any small good deeds are dwarfed by his value as symbol of artistic credibility for the Nazis, especially for his main handler, an intimidating general who fancies himself a patron of the fine arts and enjoys the social capital of cavorting with a celebrity. Hendrik, in turn, receives control of the state theatre.

Mephisto was based on a book of the same name by Klaus Mann, and it won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Hungarian director István Szabó. It’s a gorgeous period piece, and the new Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber does justice for the film’s rich color palette. Szabó makes terrific use of the era’s red, black and white, noticeably with Hendrik’s stark stage makeup as Mephisto. It recalls both the Seventh Seal’s grim reaper and the Nazi’s death’s-head iconography in equal measure. 

The story of Faust and his deal with Mephisto for knowledge and pleasure is a familiar morality tale in Western culture, told and retold in every imaginable setting: Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads and traded his to the devil for the blues; in Brian DePalma’s gonzo 1974 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, a singer sells his for pop stardom. But in its historical telling in Nazi Germany, Mephisto remakes the warning into both a timeless political allegory and universal metaphor for personal integrity.

Klaus Maria Brandauer’s masterful portrayal makes Hendrik’s transformation visceral and believable. We see, in retrospect, his early Bolshevik stylings as just another fashionable mask deployed for the right audience, easily swapped for the fascist sycophant’s grin we see in the second half. His central vanity, selfishness and jealously are apparent from the first frame of the film to the last, the politics a mere contrivance for his spineless wantonness.

Today we can imagine the backrooms of Washington, D.C. humming with the regrets of Faustian hacks, rationalizing the thousand cuts of compromise that eventually bled their conscious until nothing remained to resist the call of the Trump administration and their place within it. They sit next to the true believers, and those who never contained much moral certitude in the first place, or those who accepted their ill-fated appointments with the belief they could mitigate more harm from the inside than from out.

Like Hendrik, may they soon discover, when you make a deal with the Devil, the Devil expects payment in full.


Follow Ed McMenamin on Twitter at @edmcmenamin


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