A German stage actor finds unexpected success and mixed blessings in the popularity of his performance in a Faustian play as the Nazis take power in pre-WWII Germany. As his associates and friends flee or are ground under by the Nazi terror, the popularity of his character supercedes his own existence until he finds that his best performance is keeping up appearances for his Nazi patrons.
Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's tale of Klaus Maria Brandauer as an actor in Nazi Germany reminded me of the problem posed by Burt Lancaster in Judgment at Nuremburg. As a German lawyer indicted for enforcing Nazi ideology, he asked whether it was more moral to have fled the country the way others did in disgust, or to stay and try and moderate in a kind of passive protest. Brandauer faces the same dilema, though his predicament is given the added irony of him being an actor, a person assumed to lack an identity. However Szabo doesn't demonize the character, which may have something to do with Szabo continuing to make movies in Hungary after the Russians invaded, as evidence of the adjustment of the working artist. We may think that Mephisto's decision to stay on is ill-advised since we know the Nazis to be fickle in their allegiance, but we don't admonish him for being an opportunist. And Brandauer lets us see this actor is more than just a performer, and particularly in one close-up where his contempt for the Nazi Prime Minister is hidden behind the mask of host. The material is taken from the novel by Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann, and allegedly based on the marriage of Erika Mann (Klaus' sister) to the actor Gustav Grundgens, who appeared in Fritz Lang's M and toured Faust internationally after the war. As metaphor the Faust legend is apt, with a man who sells his soul to the devil, though the Hamlet analogy also used with Brandauer as the Nazi's Hamlet is less successful. Szabo creates an hypnotic mood of continuous dread. We are in constant fear for what will become of Mephisto, especially when he tries to protect friends, and of the horror of the Nazi's represented by the Goring-like Prime Minister. His fatness suggests both an over-ripe sensuality and a barbaric ignorance. At one point he even says "When I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver". Szabo gets a laugh from a montage of Brandaeur's entrances in various theatre roles, after he closes a curtain from an argument, and Brandaeur himself gets us on side with his first appearance howling in a jealous tantrum backstage. It is rumoured that Grundgens was a homosexual, who also had a relationship with Klaus Mann, and while Brandaeur doesn't make this overt, his fay dancing and the platonic marriages he enters into may reveal subtext.
Language: Hungarian / German
Subtitles: English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese