There are certain movies that carry with them the appendage “classic” - must-see for film snobs. Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story leap to attention. Add to these Mephisto.

Loosely based on the legend of Faust, it tells of a provincial actor who arrives in Berlin during the Nazis’ ascendancy, determined to become the greatest thespian in Germany. Originally a strong opponent of fascist politics, he is taken up by a leading minister of the Third Reich (mesmerising performance from Rolf Hoppe) and offered all that he desires, compliance with the regime being the price to pay.

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Following Hendrik Hoefgen’s single-minded rise and rise, during which time his wife, mistresses and friends are betrayed and let go, is only part of István Szabó’s astonishing work. Klaus Maria Brandauer’s performance is so multi-layered, it captures that essence of the actor’s psyche, which is invention and role playing. The real Hendrik, glimpsed early on in Hamburg, is devoured by fame and its insatiable hunger for recognition.

It would be wrong to simplify such an obvious analysis on the theme of power’s corrupt influence. Whatever the actor achieves, he remains a servant of the theatre. His patronage can be taken away, played with like a toy, as if relationships built on whimsy are flags without followers.

Hendrik’s naked ambition does not deter lovers. He has charm and a vaulted arrogance shaped for all occasions. His passion is as genuine as a falcon’s fall and his energy drives a lance through those who stand in doubt. He can be invincible; he can be overwhelmed by despair. Self-absorption comes with a desire for applause. What he has is self-belief and that’s rare. If others are swept aside on his march to the pinnacle, so be it. Destiny’s drum beats to his tune. Or not. Or what?

As Hitler’s grip on the country takes hold and brown shirts feel safe in their attack on Jews in the streets, Hendrik’s colleagues escape to America, or into secret cells, preparing for resistance. His wife leaves. His friends beg him to join them. He knows the dangers, he says. He will remain to withhold the glorious name of Shakespeare against a clamour for nationalist productions. Fear stalks the corridors of power. He feels it and realises, at the height of his success, that he has to stay with them now, because to renege would lose everything, something his compatriots feel he has already done, and so he complies, winning small victories that give the illusion of freedom.

As a personal and political masterpiece, Mephisto has few challengers.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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A provincial actor's rise to fame and glory within the protective patronage of Nazi Germany before the war.
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Director: István Szabó

Writer: Peter Dobai, István Szabó, based on the novel by Klaus Mann

Starring: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Ildiko Bansagi, Krystyna Janda, Rolf Hoppe, Gyorgy Cserhalmi, Peter Andorai, Karin Boyd, Christine Harbort, Ildiko Kishonti

Year: 1981

Runtime: 144 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: West Germany/Hungary/Austria

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