Tuesday, February 28, 2017

1981 Winner, Mephisto


Directed by:  István Szabó

Distributor:  Analysis Film Releasing Corporation

Released:  April 1981

Country:  Hungary

Faustian:  made or done for present gain without regard for future cost or consequences

The Faustian bargain is not much of one.   It’s when you're willing to give anything, ANYTHING, for your obsession.  The oft-told classic tale is of a man named Faust, appropriately enough, who sells his soul to The Devil’s bargainer, Mephistopheles, for 24 years of magical powers.  The story has about a hundred permutations:  In real life, Robert Johnson, blues-man from Mississippi, was said to have sold his soul for mad guitar skills.  The 1936 short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét is considered a classic.  In 1987’s Angel Heart, a musician named Johnny Favorite is called upon by Louis Cypher (Louis Cyper—Lucifer—get it?) to pay the debt of his soul for becoming a big time heartthrob singer.  Sometimes the deal is in the form of a bet, and the mortal wins in the end, like in Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (though anyone who had heard that song knows that the Devil and his Band of Demons sound way cooler than fiddlin' Johnny).

Pre-Faustian deal Hendrik
In Mephisto, the 1981 film from Hungary, the Faust character is that of Hendrik Hoefgen, a decent actor in pre-Nazi Hamburg.  When we first meet Hendrik, we find him in a state of angst, almost to the point of panic.  The cause:  An impressive performance, followed by praise of, a fellow thespian, a pretty and noteworthy young actress on the rise.  Hendrik craves the spotlight so much it hurts him to see another person in it.
Hendrik is an actor, and his portrayer, Klaus Maria Brandauer, overacts in the role appropriately, every emotion being at a heightened state, as if to tip off the audience that Hendrik himself cannot be just Hendrik.  He is a man without a core, and as such is open to the Faustian bargain he will be presented.

Nazi General Mephisto and Hendrik Mephisto
Hendrik’s sole purpose is to be an important actor, perhaps one day starring in his favorite play, Hamlet.  Early in the film, we see him distance himself from a relationship with his black girlfriend—it seems he does love her, but her race won’t help him in his ambitions as the Nazis gain power.  Hendrik tries to become famous by heading up a Bolshevik theater troupe—that association, not based on any true political principles, will also be jettisoned once it becomes a bad idea in National Socialist Germany.  Hendrik also will ditch a wife he married to better his career once she no longer is a benefit to him.  And instead of playing Hamlet, he takes a role in the play Faustus, and is amazing in his role of Mephisto/Mephistopheles.

Then one day Hitler takes over Germany.  The party wants to have the right people in the right places,
Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre, Angel Heart
and a Nazi General comes to Hendrik and expresses to him how great an actor he is, and how important he can be to the new government.  We have a man who would do anything to be an important actor, the most important actor, and here is a chance at that greatness.  Whatever will he do?

This movie has interesting performances and is an insightful character study.  There is a lot to like here.  But I have to say I didn’t quite take to it, really.  What was missing, I think, was that the film never gave us a chance to empathize with Hendrik.  I thought of Michael Moriarty’s character in the 1978 miniseries Holocaust, who similarly allows his character to be corrupted by the allure of being an important Nazi.  In that case, we meet him early on, a likable if milquetoast lawyer who seems swept up by circumstances, lacking the moral core to stave off the evil of Nazism.  Hendrik, conversely, embraces whatever will get him
Tenacious D also put their souls at risk versus the Devil
ahead, and so we never root for him, either to make the right choices or to get out of the consequences of his wrong ones.  Perhaps instead of working as an actor for the Nazis, had he challenged the Nazi General  to a rock-off, he would have been better off.  It worked against The Devil when he went down to Georgia.

The Title:  Comes from the title of a 1936 novel by a German exile named Klaus Mann.  The subject of the novel is closely based on a real life German actor named Gustaf Gründgens, who most notably appeared in Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece, M.  But his most famous role was that of Mestipho.

The Culture:  An instructive portrayal of what it must have been like having to be in Germany during the failing Wiemar Republic, and having to learn how to deal with the rise of Nazism.

Agenda danger:  The message of the film is a profound one—when one is willing to accept any principles, or lack of principles, grave consequences are inevitable.  

Best Picture that year:  Chariots of Fire.

Rating:  I do think this movie went on too long and that there was too long a wait to get to what the film was really about, but as a Faust story, it certainly is better than Angel Heart.  And again, Klaus Maria Brandauer’s performance is perfectly over-the-top, and hard to look away from.  Brandauer has been in a handful of American movies, including 1985’s Out of Africa, for which he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor. 

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