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Film / Mephisto

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"An actor is a mask."

Mephisto is a 1981 film from Hungary (although the whole movie is in German) directed by Istvan Szabo. It is an adaptation of 1936 novel Mephisto by Klaus Mann.

Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer in his Star-Making Role) is an actor in Weimar Germany, specifically Hamburg. He is wholly devoted to the theater, even sometimes saying that he is "married to the theater". He's actually married to wealthy Barbara Bruckner (Krystyna Janda), while keeping a secret mistress, Juliette, his dance teacher.

Hendrik professes left-wing politics and even works in a Communist theatrical troupe, but seemingly only because artists are expected to be left-wing. What he really wants is to be a star, and his career gets a big boost when he's hired to work in Berlin, which is the big-time for German theater. He plays Mephisto in Faust and makes a big impression.


When the Nazis gain power in 1933, many of Hendrik's fellow actors either continue to oppose the regime, or emigrate. Not Hendrik, who likes his life in German theater too much. He makes friendly with the Nazi Party, and rises in the theater world, eventually becoming director of all German theater—only to realize too late that he isn't Mephisto, he's Faust, and he's made his Deal with the Devil.



  • Adaptational Heroism: Hendrik is still a hypocritical weasel who makes a Deal with the Devil, but he is not quite as overtly evil as his book counterpart. In the novel, he has his ex-girlfriend imprisoned and his rival murdered. In the film, he gets his ex-girlfriend exiled to Paris, and he tries and fails to save Otto.
  • Artistic License – History: A panicked Barbara says "The Nazis have won the elections!" In fact the Nazis never won a free election in Germany and never got more than 37% of the vote. They only took power because non-Nazi conservatives invited them, as part of an extremely ill-advised power-sharing agreement.
  • Becoming the Mask: Inverted. Hendrik becomes famous for playing Mephisto onstage, but not until the end does he realize that he's made the Deal with the Devil and he is actually Faust, not Mephisto.
  • Call-Back: Early in the film, when Hendrik is making a splash on the Berlin stage, a British critic named Davidson compliments him effusively. Many years later they run into each other in Paris; Davidson slaps him and says "That's for what's going on in Germany."
  • Cassandra Truth: Dora tells Hendrik that the Nazis are going to take over, and it will be impossible to make real art anymore, and any artist with a conscience must flee. Later, in Paris, Barbara tells him that he's not an actor anymore, he is a minister and servant of the state advancing the Nazi cause, and his pretentious of still supporting liberal causes are bullshit. He ignores both of them.
  • Creator Cameo: Istvan Szabo is seen near the end, as one of the two tuxedoed guys complaining about the expense of staging a birthday party for Hermann Goering.
  • Deal with the Devil: Hendrik makes a metaphorical one, agreeing to become a Nazi stooge in return for power and wealth.
  • Dress Hits Floor: Barbara is changing when Hendrik comes into her bedroom and passionately embraces her. There's a shot of their lower legs as her dress hits the floor, then the film cuts away.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: A shot of the Eiffel Tower is used to convey that Hendrik has gone to Paris. There he meets both Juliette and Barbara.
  • Foil: Otto, who remains true to his left-wing belief while Hendrik sells out. Otto pays with his life.
  • Hypocrite:
    • In the first scene Hendrik is shown wrecking his dressing room in a fit of jealousy, as Dora crushes a musical number on the stage. He then congratulates her afterwards.
    • Hendrik gets on his high horse about Barbara and her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, saying that she'd probably find it easy to adjust to and accept Nazi dictatorship. In fact it's Hendrik who does that, while Barbara emigrates to Paris and starts an anti-Nazi newspaper.
  • It Will Never Catch On: When Barbara is panicking at the Nazi seizure of power, Hendrik tells her that the Communists and Social Democrats will still be around as opposition to act as a check on the NSDAP. Nope.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Juliette rips on Hendrik for supporting the Nazis when they are racists who hate people like her. He dismisses her concerns, but when the Minister President says that he can't keep a black mistress, he hardly hesitates in packing her away to Paris.
  • Match Cut: Hendrik closing a curtain as he's about to have sex with Juliette cuts to a curtain opening as Hendrik comes onstage in a play.
  • The Mistress: Juliette, whom Hendrik keeps as a mistress long after he's married to Barbara. When the Minister President tells him that he can't have a black girlfriend, he packs her off for Paris.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Klaus Mann's original novel was a thinly veiled satire of his family and people he knew.
    • The character of Hendrik is based on Gustaf Gründgens, Klaus Mann's brother-in-law. Gründgens, like Hendrik, played Mephisto and Hamlet on the stage, and did in fact become director of the Prussian State Theatre under the Nazis. (He is best-known to latter-day audiences for the film M, where he appears as the safecracker and leader of the kangaroo court.). The character of Barbara is Klaus Mann's sister, and Barbara's brother Sebastian, who in the movie kind of lingers around but never does anything, is Klaus Mann himself.
    • The "Minister President", the high-ranking Nazi who becomes Hendrik's patron, is Hermann Goering. "Minister President" was one of Goering's titles. Just to make it more obvious, the nameless Minister President says a line, "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my revolver", which is apocryphally attributed to Goering. Lotte Lindenthal, the stage actress who becomes the Minister President's Trophy Wife, is Emmy Goering.
    • Hendrik has an actress friend, Dora, who tells him that she is learning English so she can act in Hollywood, because the rise of the Nazis will make Germany no place for art. She's inspired by Marlene Dietrich, who was a fervent anti-Nazi.
    • The director who sets a film in Budapest, then tells Hendrik that he did it as a ruse to get out of Germany, may be inspired by Fritz Lang, who directed the real Gründgens in M and sort of snuck out of Germany to make a film in France before departing for Hollywood for good.
  • No Ending: In the last scene, the Minister President whisks Hendrik away from a party and brings him to a large stadium that the M.P. is intending to use for grand outdoor performances. He more or less forces Hendrik to go down to the field below. A whole bunch of spotlights turn on while the M.P. shouts "Hendrik Höfgen" over and over again. Hendrik, blinded by the lights, turns to the camera and says "What do they want of me? I'm only an actor." With that the film ends, mainly because the source novel was written nearly a decade before Nazi Germany was destroyed.note 
  • Pet the Dog: Hendrik likes to do this to soothe his conscience while he serves the Nazis. At one point he saves a couple of stagehands who have been denounced. Later, however, he is reminded exactly how low on the totem pole he is, when he tries to save Otto, only for the Minister President to refuse before screaming at him and kicking him out of the office.
  • Redemption Rejection: Barbara and Hendrik see each other in Paris, for the first time in years. Barbara reaches out to him with a heartfelt plea, telling him that he's lying to himself by claiming to be an apolitical artist. In reality he is a minister and servant of the German state, and even when he helps out an anti-Nazi actor in trouble, he's only doing it as a nod to his past ideals and a salve to his conscience. She tells him that the only thing he can do to cleanse himself is to leave Nazi Germany. Outside the cafe, Hendrik looks around at the buildings for a bit, and then snorts with derision, wondering what he would do with "freedom". He then goes home.
  • Shout-Out: A British critic tells Hendrik that he's better than Conrad Veidt.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: Hendrik does one of these onstage when performing a Russian play with his left-wing theater troupe (the Revolutionary Theater).
  • Time Passes Montage: Two. One montage has Hendrik cycling through a series of costumes and roles onstage and even appearing on a couple of movie sets, after establishing himself as an actor in Berlin. Later, another montage after he's director of state theater has him going through a series of interviews and meetings.
  • Title Drop: Dora tells Hendrik that he was born to play Mephisto. Later, the Minister President regularly calls Hendrik "Mephisto". The irony, of course, is that in reality Hendrik is actually Faust, and the Minister President and the Nazis are Mephisto, tempting him into selling his soul.
  • Voiceover Letter: Hendrik is hiding out in Budapest, believing himself to be blacklisted in Germany because of his left-wing past, when he gets a letter from his friend Angelika. In voiceover, Angelika says that her friend Lotte, now the Minister President's mistress, says that it's OK for him to come home and he can make amends with the Nazis. The voiceover actually cuts to a shot of the actress who plays Angelika reciting the letter, before cutting back to voiceover as Hendrik reads.

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