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Mephisto
cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Krystyna Janda, Ildikó Bánsági, Rolf Hoppe, and György Cserhalmi

director: István Szabó

139 minutes (15) 1981
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
inD DVD Region 2 retail
[released 14 August]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
Based on a novel by Klaus Mann, Mephisto sees the classic Faust tale transported to Nazi Germany. The central character is Henrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) - an aspiring actor who witnesses changes occurring within the theatrical profession due to the rise of the Nazi Party. Following his initial reluctance to compromise, he realises that acceptance of the situation could have its benefits and so begins tailoring his performances to meet the demands of the new breed of patrons. Naturally, the Nazis look on the favourably, and Hendrik is subsequently granted charge of the National Theatre. However, like Faust, he soon learns that such power doesn't come without conditions.

Mephisto won the 1982 Oscar for best foreign language film and it's not hard to see why, with its juxtaposition of theatrical fa´┐Żade and political realism recalling Cabaret (1972). However, while both films take place during the rise of Nazism, Mephisto probes the implications of this subject to a greater extent and is consistently serious in tone, thus creating an experience that's draining but satisfying. Crucially, the visual spectacle of the theatre is not just used to give the film aesthetic appeal - it also reflects the surface appeal of Nazism, which is seen to be so seductive that one may not be able (or willing) to recognise what's beneath the mask. However, Mephisto suggests that the reality can't be concealed, and illustrates this by contrasting the lavish theatrical lifestyle of the Nazis with the coldness and brutality that's at the core of the their regime.

Theatre serves as an effective metaphor throughout the film, and the incorporation of the Faustian bargain works particularly well. It's true that retelling this story isn't a revolutionary idea in itself, yet Mephisto approaches the material in a particularly artful manner and probes its complexities rather than just providing a surface reading. This is most evident in the way in which Hendrik is, on a superficial level, linked with the character of Mephisto: this is the role that Hendrik becomes famous for playing and represents the power that he possesses onstage and would like to think that he possesses in real life. However, the truth is that he is more closely aligned with the character of Faust in that, once he removes the heavy theatrical makeup, he is powerless - he is coaxed into thinking that he has a say in his life and the goings on in the theatre yet, when he attempts to exert this, he soon finds out that it won't be tolerated. This role reversal is presented in a particularly visual manner in a scene in which Henrik finds himself encircled by a group of party revellers wearing Mephisto masks, but it's in the film's memorable closing scene that it reaches its zenith. Here, Hendrik is a million miles away from his onstage persona and his powerlessness is conveyed to both him and the audience in an epic fashion.

The acting is strong across the board but, really, this is a one-man show, and Klaus Maria Brandauer gives a superb, layered performance. Given that the film depends on our ability to relate to Hendrik, it's not surprising that he proves an ultimately sympathetic character, yet he is also presented in a realistic light and certainly isn't without his negative traits. Throughout the film, our feelings regarding Hendrik oscillate: the viewer doesn't look fondly on his decision to reject his loved ones and his principles in order conform to Nazi requirements, yet we also get a sense of the fragility and emotional wrangling that are concealed beneath his public persona. Furthermore, his relationship with his black mistress never seems anything less than heartfelt, while his decision to embrace the rise of Nazism seems to be the result of naiveté and self-deception - certainly, we don't ever feel as though he condones the brutality that lies behind the spectacle. As such, Hendrik comes across as someone who is flawed yet ultimately humane, and so, when all's said and done, we feel for him throughout the film and at its conclusion in particular.

Mephisto may be a bit slow starting and, in truth, it's a film that's easier to admire than it is to enjoy. However, it serves as an excellent study of the power of propaganda and the role of performance in both art and life. Add to this a stellar performance by Brandauer, and you have an intelligent and thought-provoking piece of cinema.

There are DVD extra features, but the crisp transfer sees the film at its best - clear audio and a pristine print that brings out the richness and depth of the visuals.
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