The best reason to see István Szabó's 1981 Oscar winner for best foreign film is still Klaus Maria Brandauer. The place is Germany. The time is the 1930s, on the cusp of the Nazis' rise to power. Brandauer plays Hendrik, a gifted actor struggling with amateurs and back stage politics in a provincial theatre in Hamburg.
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In a move that is somewhat typical of the films battering ram style, Szabó plunges us deep into the tortured psyche of his anti-hero right from the start; when we first meet Hendrik he seems to be writhing in agony in his dressing room. It turns out that the reason for this actor's great suffering is that the thunderous applause we hear through his dressing room walls is in praise of another's performance. This then, is the story of Hendrik's climb to the top. Along the way he sacrifices principle, friends and lovers. He starts the movie an idealistic communist in a group theatre and ends it, a committed agent of Nazi culture… or, perhaps not? As his friends and acquaintances flee Germany in the face of Hitler's rise, they often call Hendrik on his politics; his only rejoinder is to claim he is but “an actor.” With a scathing dramatic irony, Hendrik never does see the essential truth of his dilemma.
Based on the novel by Klaus Mann, the story is in fact a parody (and something of a satire) concerning the opportunists who profited, however briefly, from throwing their talent, energy and influence behind the Nazis. Apparently Mann had based Hendrik on a famous actor, Gustaf Grundgens, famous as the leader of the gangsters in Fritz Lang's M.
Mephisto derives its title (and in part, its plot) from what becomes in the story, Hendrik's greatest role, as Mephistopheles in Faust – the story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil. In his death mask make-up, Brandauer is indeed a fierce creature; with his great cape, flashing eyes and wide mouth, the gentle, somewhat diffident Hendrik becomes a ravenous animal. But, of course, the performance is only an impersonation of evil not quite good enough to fool the real thing, up close. In the film's best scene Hendrik is given an audience with an upper echelon Nazi who shakes his hand, looks him in the eye and observes: “You look so strong… but there is weakness, you are convincing in a role that you have been preparing for your whole life.”
Eventually the Nazis offer Hendrik a top job; director of the new national theatre. Trouble is, Hendrik finds German plays, or, at least the ones the Nazis like, just aren't very good.
Stripped of its politics and cultural cache, Mephisto is in many ways a standard back stage yarn of blind ambition full of strong acting and delivered in a punchy, graceless style not unlike upscale TV drama of the era. This fact wasn't lost on critics on the movie's first release either, who found that Mann's satirical teeth had been blunted in favour of an angst-filled tale of a super-ego. Still, Brandauer's Hendrik is a marvellous creation, mostly because we feel his pain, even if we cannot help but despise him for it.