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Literature / Mephisto

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"What do men want from me? Why do they pursue me? Why are they so hard? All I am is a perfectly ordinary actor..."

Mephisto is a 1936 German language novel by Klaus Mann.

Mann's novel updates Faust to Nazi Germany. The protagonist is Hendrik Hoefgen, an ambitious actor whose career gains an improbable boost when Hitler takes power. Hoefgen plays Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, earning the notice of "The Air Force General," a high-placed Nazi official (an Anonymous Ringer for Hermann Goering) who takes Hoefgen under his wing. Soon Hoefgen becomes the public face of Nazi kultur, culminating in the directorship of Germany's National Theater. Too late, Hoefgen realizes the cost of his Deal with the Devil.

Mann's novel is a seriocomic Take That! against artists collaborating with the Nazi regime. Notoriously, Hoefgen is a thinly veiled portrait of Mann's brother-in-law, Gustaf Grundgens, who became director of Germany's National Theater under Goering's patronage. All of the major characters are stand-ins for Mann's family and associates, or else Nazi officials.

The novel was originally published in France and the Netherlands, but was (unsurprisingly) banned in Germany and never received wide publication in Mann's lifetime. It received its first German edition in 1956 in East Germany, as Communist censors found its antifascist message appealing, and gradually received a broader release over the following decades (with its first English translation in 1977). Unsurprisingly, Grundgens and his family weren't flattered by his portrayal, suing to prevent Mephisto's publication in West Germany for decades. It was finally published there in 1981, long after both Mann and Grundgens were deceased.

Mephisto was adapted into an acclaimed film in 1981, directed by Istvan Szabo and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer. The movie's mostly faithful to Mann's text, but it's less comedic, treating Hoefgen as a Tragic Hero rather than a ridiculous twit. The novel also received a stage adaptation by French playwright Ariane Mnouchkine which has been produced in France, Germany and the United States.

Makes an interesting counterpart to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. Thomas Mann, of course, was Klaus' father.

Contains examples of:

  • Anonymous Ringer: The Nazi officials: Goering is "the Air Force General" and occasionally "the Prime Minister," Joseph Goebbels is "the Propaganda Minister," Hitler "the Fuhrer."
  • Author Avatar: Sebastian, Hoefgen's brother-in-law, stands in for Klaus Mann.
  • Author Filibuster: The whole book really, especially Chapter Seven describing Hitler's ascension to power and Hoefgen's reaction.
  • Bald of Evil: Hoefgen slowly goes bald over the course of the story, before shaving his head completely in the last chapter. "He felt no need to be ashamed of his nobly shaped skull."
  • Becoming the Mask: An inversion: Hoefgen plays Mephistopheles onstage, while becoming Faust in real-life.
  • Black Vikings: Hoefgen's mistress Juliette, who's half-African (and whose relationship becomes a very guilty secret once the Nazis take power).
  • Blackmail Backfire: Both Juliette and Caesar von Muck try blackmailing Hoefgen. It doesn't end well for either.
  • Bondage Is Bad: Hoefgen's lurid, kinky relationship with Juliette.
  • Break the Haughty: Hans Miklas, the Nazi-sympathizing actor who grows disillusioned once Hitler actually takes power.
  • Deal with the Devil: It is a Faust update, though a non-supernatural take on the story.
  • Depraved Homosexual: One minor character, a French theater critic with fascist sympathies, who openly ogles the well-dressed SS officers attending the Prime Minister's birthday party.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Hoefgen's real first name is Heinz, but he only lets his mother call him that.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Hoefgen's very close with his Mother.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: Hoefgen doesn't mind using his Nazi connections to further his career, exile his mistress or dispose of several rivals. When Hoefgen tries using them for good, the Prime Minister responds by executing Hoefgen's favorite director.
  • Foil: Otto Ulrichs, the Communist theater director who retains his principles even as Hoefgen loses his.
  • How We Got Here: The story starts at the Prime Minister's birthday party in 1936 (the novel's present-day), then flashes back to the early '20s.
  • Mephistopheles: Through the story, the motif of Faust selling his soul to Mephistopheles is used as a thematic parallel for Hoefgen choosing to associate with the Nazis to pursue his obsessive desire to play the demon in a rendition of Faust.
  • Never My Fault: As evidenced by the page quote: Hoefgen never realizes the consequences of his actions, even when people die as a result.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Hoefgen is clearly Gustaf Grundgens. Besides his career arc and relationship with Mann, Grundgens' most famous theater role was Mephistopheles. Today he's probably best-known for appearing in Fritz Lang's M.
    • Besides Hoefgen, his wife Barbara is Mann's sister Erika. Lotte Lindenthal, actress-turned-Prime Minister's mistress, is Goering's wife Emmy. There's another character, Dora Martin, who seems to be a Marlene Dietrich expy (androgynous appearance, husky voice, goes to America to act in films).
  • Noble Fugitive: Barbara and her family.
  • Pet the Dog: Hoefgen does manage to save several actors/directors from prison, but his favorite director, Otto Ulrichs, isn't so lucky.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Played with. Hoefgen's definitely talented, but he clearly wouldn't have gotten as far as he does without Goering's friendship. When Hoefgen tries playing Hamlet it's generally labeled a disaster. This much at least is unfair to Grundgens, who played Hamlet to considerable acclaim.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Caesar von Muck, who acts as Hoefgen's patron while secretly undermining him. He's eventually Kicked Upstairs by Goering.