Mephisto (1981)
Mephisto (1981)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 24 min.

Release Date: September 29th, 1981 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Istvan Szabo Actors: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Krystyna Janda, Ildiko Bansagi, Rolf Hoppe, Gyorgy Cserhalmi, Peter Andorai, Karin Boyd, Christine Harbort




n the surface, “Mephisto” is relatively easy to interpret, despite being a foreign language picture from Hungary. The adaptation of Faust provides a universal story to assimilate, set against a familiar historical environment, with costuming and culture more recognizable than versions staged in the present. What makes this tale of soul-selling, indulgence, and moral corruption even more singular is the sensational, deeper turn by Klaus Maria Brandauer, who delivers a thought-provoking, daring portrayal under the direction of Istvan Szabo – which would begin an acclaimed collection of feature collaborations, including “Colonel Redl” [1985] and “Hanussen” [1988].

Hendrik Hofgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) makes a name for himself in Hamburg as a prominent stage actor, eventually becoming involved with political plays shortly before the Nazis take control of Germany in World War II. After he accepts an invitation to Berlin, he soon rises to fame as a leading German actor, quickly giving up the obvious political ideals he assured himself he didn’t possess. Compelled to stay in his motherland, where he can act using his original language, Hendrik is pressured into performing in, and then managing, only pro-German productions. As his politically rebellious friends disappear around him and his conscience begins to weigh more heavily, he deceives himself into believing that his personal success is a necessity to keep the art of theater alive in Berlin.

While the film runs slightly overlong, it never gets tiresome, thanks to Brandauer’s haunting performance. Hofgen is eccentric and flawed, suffering from anxiety, depression, promiscuity, and the constant need for attention. He seeks acceptance from anyone who will give it and travels around from woman to woman, entreating companionship in a time when true friends are difficult to find. When his close, leftist ally Otto Ulrichs (Peter Andorai) gets in trouble with the socialist party, Hendrik immediately comes to his aid; but when his rival Hans Miklas (Gyorgy Cserhalmi) realizes similar mistakes and attempts to make amends, Hendrik ignores him. The star finds himself unable to escape from seeking good terms with the attentive Nazis – his yearning for acknowledgement and recognition simply won’t allow it.

Wallowing in self-deception, Hendrik tries to convince himself that his allegiance with the enemy is an obligation. Perhaps it is just another role that he must play. For the sake of the arts, he forces himself to stay, even though he has multiple chances to flee. In the beginning, Hendrik was a freethinking rebel who constantly challenged the authority of the stage and excitedly ranted about his ideas and contributions; by the end, denial and a loss of drive have molded him into an indoctrinated follower who does the bidding of those in power – the ones who can keep him in the limelight.

While the story of Faust has been done countless times in film, it’s fascinating to see a character portray both Faust and Mephistopheles – a rather layered bit of symbolism. Donning the striking vinyl-like white makeup of Mephisto, and then succumbing to the very same offers of success that Faust fell prey to, Hendrik is doomed by his desire not to disappoint and caught in the irony of unknowingly representing the opposite character on stage. With such an exceptionally powerful lead performance, beautifully resonant music, and a classic tale of the distortion of a soul, “Mephisto” has curiously remained obscure throughout the years, despite winning the coveted Best Foreign Language Film Oscar of 1981.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10