"Mephisto," the Oscar-winning Hungarian-West German import, is ostensibly a character study of a corruptible artist. The movie takes a grim view of the career of an unprincipled actor called Hendrik Ho fgens whose success is linked with his willingness to cultivate patrons in the Nazi regime.
More solemn than a roomful of hanging judges, "Mephisto" suggests a cut-and-dried brief for the prosecution. This is disappointing since the director of "Mephisto," the Hungarian Istvan Szabo, evidently has some gaiety in his soul. Celebrating on Academy Award night, he staged an impromptu dance with the star of the movie, Klaus Maria Brandauer. You'd never guess there was a spontaneous aspect to his sensibility from the stern purposefulness of the film itself. At least not beyond the disarmingly charming opening sequence, which depicts an operetta star beguiling a theater audience in Hamburg in the role of Madame Dubarry.
The focus shifts backstage, where Brandauer as Ho fgens is fuming and fussing, incensed that the audience's applause is not for him. This solitary temper tantrum seems extreme as both reaction and introduction. Could this poor wretch possibly covet the role of Dubarry? What can he do for a histrionic encore?
The movie keeps racking up points against the protagonist before we've scarcely met him. Ho fgens exposes himself as a hypocrite by fulsomely flattering the actress after her performance. During a peculiarly kinky rendezvous with his mistress, a tigerish mulatto (Karin Boyd), he enjoys an inconclusive round of slinking and groping while also listening to a harsh character analysis. "You love only yourself," the tiger girl comments, through flashing teeth and orgasmic moans, "and then not enough. Your only concern is that your face remain free of expression, a mask . . . A mask among human beings."
Gaudy as this form of exposition may be, you can't help noticing that it's also self-defeating. For one thing, Brandauer doesn't fit the description being pinned on his character. If anything, his face is set in an expression that's too broadly, humorously mischievous and untrustworthy. It's easy to imagine him playing schemers or satyrs.
When he enjoys a great success as Mephisto in Goethe's "Faust," you're not surprised, because it appears he could play the part without makeup. While Ho fgens is obviously compromised by hitching his star to an evil political regime, there's no evidence of unscrupulousness in his conduct. His rationalizations for remaining in Germany sound rather persuasive during a conversation in Paris with his first wife, who elected to leave Germany when the Nazis came to power. "We can't choose when and where we're born. An entire country can't emigrate. I need the language! I need my homeland!"
The screenplay is derived from a somewhat notorious novel, which may have been intended to even a personal score or two in the first place. Written by Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann, it was published in 1936 and banned in Germany for several decades. Ho fgens was assumed to be a thinly veiled portrait of the stage and film actor Gustaf Gru ndgens, who rose to prominence in the early '30s, enjoyed the patronage of Herman Goering during the Nazi period and eventually reestablished his standing in the postwar years, after being cleared of criminal charges by the Allied authorities. Gru ndgens was briefly married to Klaus Mann's sister Erika, and it's believed that Gru ndgens also had a brief romantic fling with Klaus.
At any rate, the source material is not exactly the work of a disinterested observer. Szabo introduces an additional layer or three of dubiousness by attempting to portray Ho fgens as an allegorical figure--the actor as symbol of emptiness and corruption.
Stilted and didactic, "Mephisto" seems to reflect an utterly prosaic sensibility.