27 October 2010

MEPHISTO (Dir. Istvan Szabo, 1981, Germany/Hungary/Austria) - The Faustian Pact

Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's 1999 film Sunshine starring Ralph Fiennes confronts the personal crisis of cultural and religious assimilation faced by a Jewish family growing up in Hungary. It was for me one of the best films of the nineties and whilst Szabo's body of work has been somewhat of an oversight for me, his most critically acclaimed film Mephisto, released in 1981, underlines a thematic preoccupation with identity that probably best characterises his status as a European film auteur. Juxtaposing the rise of fascism to the development of political theatre in Nazi Germany, Mephisto is a film all about performance. The central character of Hendrik Hoefgen, played impressively by German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, is desperate for fame and artistic recognition. Prior to Hitler taking power, Hoefgen argues theatre should be used as a leftist tool for political and communist agitation but with the emergence of fascism in the 1930s, Hoefgen is faced with a dilemma; whether he should stay and be part of the propaganda machine or go into exile and continue his artistic endeavours elsewhere. Overcome with the possibilities of acquiring fame, Hoefgen makes a Faustian pact with the Nazis and quickly ascends to becoming one of the biggest names in theatre. His signature act as Mephistopheles becomes the clearest metaphor of his assimilation into Nazi ideology yet we are never quite sure if Hoefgen is merely using such a mask to disguise his own dislike of such an ugly display of power. However, his later attempts to maintain the tradition of political theatre is undermined by the Nazis when his determination to repeatedly emphasise theatre as central to the construction of national identity is denounced as secondary to the push for European domination. The final sequence is the most chilling as Hoefgen is taken by his Nazi accomplices to the Berlin Stadium which is awaiting the opening ceremony that will take place in 1936. It is here that we finally see Hoefgen stripped of his mask and trapped inside the performance space. Additionally, it is here that director Szabo foreshadows the spectacle and performance of Nazi propaganda that Hitler would take to new heights with the numerous rallies. In a way, it offers a concrete link to the constructed and pre determined nature of Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will.


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