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Saturday, 26 April 2008

Mephisto (1981)

A young and beautiful opera singer called Dora Martin who seems to have done a magnificent job elicits a standing ovation from the entire audience. Everyone is enthralled and happy except Hendrik Hoefgen, who has a fit about it. You see, they weren't clapping for him and that just isn't fair, you know? He's a provincial actor in Hamburg who doesn't even like his name (Heinz) yet loves himself over anyone and anything else. As portrayed by Klaus Maria Brandauer, he's always acting, even when he's not on stage. Brandauer is an actor playing an actor playing an actor, which gives the part a huge amount of depth and plenty of potential readings.

The historical background to the story gives it plenty more. Ostensibly a Hungarian film, Mephisto was made in 1981 as a West German, Hungarian and Austrian coproduction, but the source novel of the same name by Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann, was banned in Germany until the 21st century. Mann claims that the novel, written in 1936 after he had been exiled from Germany, is based on a particular type of person, while most critics believe it was a very deliberate and ony thinly veiled attempt to portray his brother-in-law, Gustaf Gründgens.

Like the alliterative Hendrik Hoefgen, the alliterative Gustaf Gründgens was a famous German actor (I've seen him in Fritz Lang's M). Both were most famous for their portrayal of Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, Gründgens being regarded by some as having given the greatest intepretation of all. Both were bisexual, though this is toned down in the film to Hoefgen having a notably limp handshake that a prominent Nazi general comments on a few times. Both were notable for having put their own self gain before everything else, in an era of extreme politics. Neither are Nazis but they shamelessly use the Nazis for their own ends and both are favourites of the Prime Minister, Hermann Göring.

Hoefgen's beliefs are more communist than National Socialist, having radical ideas of liberating theatre for the masses, but he has no real political beliefs. In early days in Hamburg he makes a point of not belonging to any party or having any political allegiance, he even speaks dismissively of the rising Nazis. After the Nazis rise to power and he returns to Berlin from a film shoot in Budapest, he hides a Jew in his house, he continues to sleep with a black woman and brings a fellow radical back from exile to appear in his company. Yet he turns people in to the Nazis, knowing or deliberately ignoring that they're going to be shot, follows all Nazi rulings and even participates in Nazi speechmaking.

The point, or the most obvious one, is one of perspective. Hoefgen isn't a hero for going back to Germany and doing these human things, he's a villain for being a deliberate and knowing part of the villainy. The depth comes from the characterisation, both as written and as acted, of why he chooses to do this. How much of it is deliberate fraternisation, how much is self delusion, how much is blind ambition, how much is egotism run rampant. Brandauer, who is by far the most dominant thing about this film, is astounding. Director István Szabó does an excellent job in bringing the story to the screen, leaving its complexity intact.

Mephisto won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1982. I don't think I've seen any of its competitors, so have no clue whether it was deserved or not. However good this is, Das Boot was better and it was also released in 1981. However it's Oscar attention came in 1983 rather than 1982 and was in major categories like Best Director rather than being relegated to the Foreign Film category. Mephisto is a great film, but it suffers like many multinational European productions in that many of its actors are not fluent in the language that the film was made in. Brandauer is German and has no problem being effective in that language, but his costars aren't as fortunate. Many of the cast are Hungarian, including Ildikó Bánsági, Péter Andorai and György Cserhalmi. Krystyna Janda is Polish. Consequently many of the major actors in the film are dubbed and not particularly well, though that's very possibly the fault of the actors rather than the dubbers.

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