Mephisto," which beat out the Polish favorite "Man of Iron" for the Academy Award for best foreign film, is opening here this weekend, giving us a chance to understand the choice.
A West German-Hungarian film by Istvan Szabo, done in German, "Mephisto" is also about political freedom -- in this case the deal by which a German actor, famous for playing Mephistopheles, sells his soul to a Nazi patron, and the menacingly slow way in which payment is collected. It's loosely based on the career of Gustaf Gruendgens, via a roman a clef by Klaus Mann, Grundgens' brother-in-law and rumored lover (and Thomas Mann's son).
Like "Man of Iron," "Mephisto" presents its moral issues so unequivocally that one wants to shout directions at the characters, who do not perceive dangers that are obvious to the viewer. Of course world events have given us the advantage of knowing how mercilessly the respective regimes will deal with these individuals -- and the crushing of Solidarity just as the Polish film was released made the audience position an eerie one.
But the moral issues are presented so simply as to leave the audience especially impatient when a character refuses to act as we know would be best. This is more true of the German actor, who naturally lacks the nobility inherent in the personally unwise moves of the Polish labor organizer.
And yet "Mephisto" is the more subtle film, with stunningly silent scenes in which the richness and precariousness of the terms of the pact with Nazism are depicted. In one a bejeweled but nervous audience watches, unable to hear, as Mephisto, in costume, makes obeisance in the state box occupied by the Nazi leader and his mock-queenly mistress.
There is little direct dealing with persecution of the Jews here, the function being largely assumed by a lithe black dancer, one of the chief character's mistresses, who says in despair that her father was German, she was born in Germany, and German is the only language she knows.
Dropping her, at the soft command of his Nazi patron (who is based on Goering), is only one of many concessions the actor must make in return for maintaining and increasing his personal and professional success. The delighted protege comes to believe that he has a real share in the power around him, until it's abruptly demonstrated that he is a mere tool, an easily infatuated victim who can count on nothing but contempt even when he toes the line.
Having made all the arguments in favor of cooperation with the regime -- that this puts him in a position to help individuals, that as an actor he can't work abroad because he needs the German language, that if someone is to prosper it's fitting that artists should do so, that those who stay will be the ones to rebuild Germany -- he is left, at the end, with the pathetic excuse of being "only an actor."
Klaus Maria Brandauer, in the leading role, gives a frighteningly good portrayal of the actor's enjoyment in playing at real-life political roles, just as he has played at romance, revolutionary theater politics and friendship. It's less convincing, in the scenes of plays, that he is a great enough classical actor to transcend his personal life, or to have betrayed a divine gift to buy cheap favors from Mephistopheles. MEPHISTO -- At the Outer Circle.