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Based on the novel by Klaus Mann, itself a barely concealed slap in the face of the author’s brother-in-law, Gustaf Gründgens, István Szábó’s Mephisto uses the story of fictional actor Hendrik Höfgen to dramatize the early years of Nazi Germany and the turbulence preceding them. Made after the vogue for films about fascism and Nazism had already peaked, Mephisto doesn’t explore the politics or try to explain them. Rather, it demonstrates how cowardice and opportunism allow one man to accommodate himself to a devil’s bargain for personal gain.

The fact that Höfgen is painfully insecure and emotionally confused, that he needs the mask of public success and esteem to keep himself together, creates a disturbing ambiguity. The film ably demonstrates that anyone is capable of just about anything under the right circumstances. As other characters suggest he emigrate, for example, Höfgen answers that he is a German actor who needs the German language, with no hope for success abroad. He also makes the excellent point that emigration as a form of protest is a luxury only the privileged can afford, that an entire country cannot emigrate. Höfgen’s reasons for staying in Germany may be pure rationalization, in other words, but they are not easy to dismiss.

For all of the film’s moral ambiguity, however, Mephisto remains first and foremost an actor’s showcase, unimaginable with a different lead. In an interview on the DVD, Klaus Maria Brandauer admits that when he read the script, he knew he had to play Höfgen because he was the character. Brandauer’s ability to convey Höfgen’s turmoil, doubts, insecurity and brilliance is mesmerizing. When people refer to Höfgen as Germany’s finest living actor, you believe it because you are witnessing his contemporary (Austrian) equivalent. Brandauer demonstrates how Höfgen is only truly alive when acting. Between performances, he is a mass of conflicting anxieties, desperately grasping at any available sense of self. To speak as the Nazi regime’s “chief parrot” as one character describes Höfgen, is just another role. Like a hurt child, he does not understand why others cannot see this basic point. Being Germany’s greatest actor is simply the life he thinks he was meant to live. “In the end, you are what you are,” says Goethe’s Mephistopheles, Höfgen/Gründgen’s most famous role. Höfgen’s tragedy is that he never finds what he is.

Szábó and his collaborators clearly conceive Mephisto as a well upholstered cushion for Brandauer. There are some cinematically lively moments, but the film exists to display the performer at his best. (There’s hardly a scene in which Höfgen does not appear.) With such scrutiny, it is as if he were being held to the light as an interesting specimen. This detachment achieves a delicate balance between antipathy for Höfgen’s behavior and sympathy for his motives. He is appalling, but difficult to condemn because the film is that rarest of rarities, a truly “objective” work of art. As such, it may prove more profoundly political than anyone ever intended.