Life imitates art with a cruelly ironic twist of fate for a small-time German theater actor during the rise of the Nazi party in pre-WWII Germany.
István Szabó's Oscar winning "Mephisto" (1981), adapted from the Klaus Mann novel is a delicious twist on the Deal with the Devil motif. Born to play the character of Mephisto in a stage adaptation of the legend of Faust, Hendrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is an immensely talented and ambitious Hamburg actor. As pure evil (in the form of Nazi dictatorship) spreads its dark wings and descends upon them, Hoefgen finds out the hard way, that his performance of a lifetime would end up being that of a weak, Faust-like puppet in the hands of a higher Mephisto, the ruling Nazi General (Rolf Hoppe). As the General dictates Hoefgen's every move, he tempts him into giving up his very conscience in return for a respectable position and unprecedented success. Individual freedom, thought and morality be damned, as long as stardom and social standing is guaranteed.
But in hindsight, what Hoefgen does is very human. As his wife leaves him to flee the country, and some friends and colleagues join the resistance, fearing for the future of theater and arts, Hoefgen sticks to his guns, more out of fear and a strictly apolitical stance. He always maintains that it's none of his business who comes into power, as long as he gets to pursue his first love, that is acting. It dawns upon him rather late, but he anticipates it anyway, that he may find himself at the juncture where he may have to choose between success and freedom. In the Nazi rule, an end to freedom means an end to everything. When one loses their right to speak out against what seems morally wrong to the sane mind, when one has to forego their conscience and be a mute spectator as their friends are taken away to be bumped off for only raising a finger in protest, isn't it indeed, but an act of selling one's soul?
By his own admittance, Hoefgen is weak, as also pointed out by the General during their first meet. "It seems the secret of acting is to portray strength, yet one is weak", he remarks and laughs cheekily while commenting on Hoefgen's rather limp handshake and an undeniable kindness in the eyes of the man wearing the mask of Mephisto. Despite this, he makes his best efforts to save his friends of leftist tendencies and others, including the half German - half African girlfriend from being targeted for being racially impure.
Acting is a central motif of "Mephisto" and its context and significance observes a shift through the film and through Hoefgen's gradual descent into hell. On a literal level, Hoefgen is this passionate actor, who regards his talent and art above everything else. It is interesting how his own viewpoint about his profession sees a marked change, from the beginning of the film, when at one point he asks "Do you know what it means to be an actor?" to a quote later (mentioned at the end of the review) in which it seems that he deems it a mere trifle in a drastic change of context.
"An actor is a mask", Hoefgen says. Sure enough, acting entails masking one's real self. In Szabó's film, acting also becomes a metaphor for conforming. With the Nazi party and its oppressive regime coming into power, individual thought and freedom is suppressed. Becoming a party to and complying with their authoritarian ways becomes the new role taken on by an individual, although not by their own accord. And this is where Hoefgen occupies the very center of the conflict between an individual and his/her actor counterpart, for Hoefgen is that passion-driven man who favours the actor in him more than anything else.
Acting is in his blood, and so when it comes to compliance, in return for success, it's merely a way of life for him; a transition, yes, but to a higher stature in the same profession, although it comes as a product of some degree of fear and the inability to uproot himself from his motherland. Aside from being a symbolic core of the story, Hoefgen is literally put in the center of two circles in two haunting scenes, one being a sort of Devils's dance, with a few guys wearing the masks of Mephisto encircling and dancing around him; and the other visually brilliant sequence, in which he is almost blinded by spotlights flashed from all sides, manoeuvring him like giant puppet strings.
Szabó balances the heavy thematic content of the film with an immaculately constructed screenplay that is quite detailed, but never skips a beat. A sense of foreboding and impending terror gradually makes its presence felt as the carefree mood of the beginning starts to dissolve into an air of fear and doom, and hints are sprinkled that the Nazis may come to power, threatening to change things for the worse. There are awfully bad things happening, but they are merely suggested and any instances of war-related or political atrocities are mostly kept off screen and out of the scope of the film, and yet the impact is never diluted. There is no room for any exaggerated melodrama and not a single wrong or awkward note is ever struck.
The theatrics are reserved only for the great Klaus Maria Brandauer, who delivers a heartfelt, electric performance to trump all performances. He showcases an amazing range, from going way over the top in his theater histrionics to shedding that silent, contemplative tear once in a while for a friend who may have lost his life for standing up against an autocratic system. Klaus takes on dual roles of Mephisto and Faust at the same time, an all-powerful actor, admired and sought after in the social circles for his titular role and also the meek pawn that is Faust, exalted or derided at the whim of his employer. And what a devilish employer too, with that cherubic face and yet an unmistakable malice evident from behind that sweet smile, a part played to perfection by Rolf Hoppe.
With immaculate casting and flawless writing and direction, this "Mephisto" (1981) casts a captivating spell 'til the credits start rolling. It has that rare ability to make us root for a very flawed hero, without itself taking any sides. And hence, we find ourselves simply nodding in agreement when Hoefgen breaks the fourth wall and exclaims, "What do they want of me? After all, I am only an actor!"