No, this isn't a movie about Satanism.
Back in my college days I had an interesting assignment for a history class I had to take to fill some sort of requirement. I was to take one of the various personalities we studied in the class (this was post-1850 European history) and read a book about this person in order to prepare a written report on the final. Digging through the stacks of the University of Maine library I found a book (the title of which I've long forgotten) about Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda that he ran. Considering that I was also a working towards a mass communications degree, I found the book fascinating, especially considering that the book was published in 1943. Modern historians now know the impact of the Nazi regime on the world. The destruction they caused. The lives that were lost. The attempted genocide known as The Holocaust. It's something our world can never forget. This book was a study in how they manipulated the media of the 1930s and bent them to their own purposes to seize and retain their power. All actors and writers had to be of pure German blood, and their talents were used to create a vast array of propaganda films and radio programs at the direction of the Reich. These policies also extended to the theater, and it's in this environment that Mephisto is set.
Facts of the Case
Hendrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is a talented, vain, conceited actor who quickly rises to the top of Hamburg's District Theater. He aspires for the theater to reach out to the working class to appease his tendencies of Bolshevism, but this fails. He marries. He keeps a mistress. He's then invited to perform in Berlin and he quickly ascends the ranks and becomes one of Germany's greatest actors. Then the Nazi Party takes control. He flees Germany. His wife flees Germany. He returns. He befriends a general and uses this relationship to help his friends. He has his mistress deported to France. He produces German propaganda despite his conscience and the lack of freedom an artist desires. He visits his mistress in France. He returns to Germany.
Did the above description drive you crazy? If it did then you should not watch this film, which moves at such a brisk, implausible pace that the audience has no time to digest what's happening. Scenes transition inexplicably, yet we're expected to follow along. In one scene Hendrik meets Barbara (Krystyna Janda) at a stage rehearsal. In the next they're with a group of cast members in a café and he can't take his eyes off of her. In the next moment they're in the woods and he's professing his love. In the very next scene they're engaged and he's meeting her family. In the next moment they're married and Hendrik discovers that he doesn't agree with his wife's politics. Well, here's some advice: spend more than two minutes on the courting process before getting married. And this pace continues for 144 minutes. The General (Rolf Hoppe) requests that Hendrik write his biography, and in the very next frame the General is leafing through the finished biography and discussing Hendrik's ridiculous foray into Bolshevism. It's maddening to watch and comprehend. This style of directing suggests that perhaps István Szabó should have lengthened his work, and maybe fleshed out a real script. As it stands it would seem a monkey with Attention Deficit Disorder wrote the screenplay.
It also probably doesn't help that Hendrik is not in any manner a likeable character. He berates those who are lesser than him, which would be everyone except his Nazi captors. He refers to an actress in Berlin as "a cow" but immediately kisses up to her when she uses her contacts within the Nazi Party to grant him passage back into Germany. His vanity is unrivaled, and Hendrik's need to be in front of an audience who loves him in the motherland outweighs the needs of his friends, family and his mistress (Karin Boyd). His transformation is even made complete when he turns a fellow actor over to the S.S. all for the sake of political gain. At this point he has become his favorite character, Mephisto.
Certainly, this film has a message, but the entire message can be summed up as follows:
Censorship is bad, mmkay? Nazis are bad, mmkay? Fascism is bad, mmkay?
As far as the DVD presentation goes, Anchor Bay has once again brought forth a decent anamorphic transfer for a film that probably would have been forgotten by anybody else. The transfer is not the greatest, however. Some scenes are grainy, and some background images are blurry. I have no accounting of the quality of the source material, so it's difficult to pin down the problem. The sound is presented in a drab Dolby 2.0 mix, but this film really doesn't need a souped-up soundtrack. As far as the extras are concerned, there is a tremendously boring interview with director István Szabó and Klaus Maria Brandauer, as well bios on German personalities you've probably never heard of.
If this were not enough, I really had to shake my head at the subtitles. I'll point out that I took four years of German between high school and college, a beautiful language that I've completely forgotten since then. I'm very proud of this feat. In fact, I can safely say that I've forgotten two other languages that I've learned, but I'm most proud that I've forgotten four years of German. What I can attest to, however, is that phrases like "wearing elevating socks" appears in no language on this planet, though I could be wrong.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can't say everything is wrong with Mephisto. The intentions of the messages are solid and the film presents a portion of history that today's populace seems to be forgetting about. The film reaches to vast heights but comes crashing down. The shoddy presentation simply ruined this experience for me.
If I had created a film using this sort of pacing and turned it in to a film instructor, I would have flunked the class. Apparently, however, it's possible to make this type of film, insure that it has a relevant social and/or political message, and win an Academy Award, which Mephisto did for Best Foreign Language Film in 1982. My mind boggles.
This film is simply not a movie you should pop into the DVD player for a night of entertainment—it's heavy, weighty material, and I would only marginally recommend it to film history buffs.
Anchor Bay and the cast of Mephisto are acquitted on the basis of a job well done. István Szabó is held in contempt of this court and is sentenced to watching one hundred film school student projects, just to show him.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• The Naked Face: Conversations with Director István Szabó and Star Klaus Maria Brandauer
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