Hungary’s Oscar BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM winner, directed by István Szabó, one of the country’s most eminent filmmakers, unlike most pictures depicting a pre-WWII Germany from the standpoint of the dreaded persecuted, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s DESPAIR (1978), MEPHISTO skews it to an squeaky-clean Caucasian German specimen, Hendrik Hoefgen (Brandauer), an apolitical theater actor in Hamburg, who is first seen yowling hysterically in his dressing room in the wake of prima donna Dora Martin (Kishonti)’s triumphant curtain call, handling peer pressure is a tricky business.
Contending for a successful career, Hendrik creates a Bolshevik theater to gain more work, marries Barbara Bruckner (Janda), a production designer hailed from a posh family, and finally makes his mark by playing Mephisto in a Faustus play, the incarnation of demon. A role is also much to the liking of the General of the Third Reich (Hoppe) - a role modeled on Hermann Göring -, when Nazi party comes to power. Barbara and many of his friends and colleagues flee from Germany, but Hendrik returns after being given amnesty for his flirtation with avant-gardism, thanks to actress Lotte Lindenthal (Harbort), who happens to the lover of the General.
Step by step, Hendrik is promoted to be the head manger of the National Theater in Berlin under the auspice of the General, who simply calls him “my dear Mephisto”, yet his apparent rising-through-the-ranks cannot save his black mistress Juliette Martens (Boyd) from being deported to Paris (although it is to his credit that she is delivered from annihilation), or the life of his friend Otto Ulrichs (Andorai), his marriage with Barbara is naturally dissolved, actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr (Bánsági), the best friend of the latter, comes as a low hanging fruit as a rightful wife, with the blessing of the General.
First and foremost, MEPHISTO’s wow factor primarily rides on Klaus Maria Brandauer’s profound proteanism, who deliriously basks in Hendrik’s time-serving complexity as well as his theatrical antics, alternately haughty, histrionic, spontaneous, heartfelt, childish or earnest, it is a career-defining tour-de-force that among the best ever. Veteran actor Rolf Hoppe (who just passed away a little more than one month earlier) also laudably impresses us with the General’s acrimonious mutability, and a plucky Karin Boyd defies any exploitation (both of her skin color and rangy body) to hold it on her own, her pas-de-deux with Brandauer in the buff demonstrates the fleeting but coruscating outburst of free spirit, soon will be submersed under the pall of smothering foreboding.
Art vs. reality, the metaphor of Mephisto can be fairly alluded to the Nazi party itself, a demonic force luring its devotees to unleash the most heinous vice onto the world, as a cog in this wicked wheel, no one, however apolitical, can come out of it unscathed, apprehending his tenuous rapport with the party, in Szabó’s glaring surreal final shots, Hendrik is running scared for his precarious future, a resounding kicker to expose evil from within, MEPHISTO, sometime running away with its high theatrics and unruly caprice, is a spine-tingling reminder of what it is like to live when perpetuating fear and injustice is hovering overhead.
referential entries: Szabó’s BEING JULIA (2004, 7.1/10); Ildikó Enyedi’s MY TWENTIETH CENTURY (1989, 7.2/10); Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s DESPAIR (1978, 7.8/10).